Facebook tests solar-powered drones to deliver internet access

Facebook has successfully completed a test flight of a solar-powered drone that it intends to fly over third world countries in order to bring internet access to deprived areas.

Dubbed ‘Aquila’, the drones are super lightweight and designed to fly at high-altitudes. The first one was built last year and boasts a wingspan equivalent to a Boeing 737. 

The recent test flight saw the drone fly at relatively low altitude for 96 minutes in Arizona, but the company ultimately hopes to have a fleet of Aquilas that can fly for at least three months at a time at around 18,000 metres and communicate with each other to deliver internet access.

Writing in a post announcing Aquila’s first flight, Jay Parikh, Facebook’s Head of Engineering and Infrastructure, said: “We believe this work has never been more important. New technologies like Aquila have the potential to bring access, voice and opportunity to billions of people around the world and do so faster and more cost-effectively than has ever been possible before.”

Google has also launched a similar project, Project Loon, which uses helium filled balloons to offer internet access in Indonesia. 

The network of high-altitude balloons are similarly designed to boost internet availability in remote parts of the world.

Yael Maguire, Facebook's engineering director and head of its Connectivity Lab, said in an interview that the company initially hoped Aquila would fly for 30 minutes.

"We're thrilled about what happened with our first flight," Maguire said. "There are still a lot of technical challenges that need to be addressed for us to achieve the whole mission." He said he hoped the system might be brought into service "in the near future."

Zuckerberg laid out the company's biggest challenges in flying a fleet of Aquilas, including making the plane lighter so it can fly for longer periods, getting it to fly at an altitude of 18km and creating communications networks that allow it to rapidly transfer data and accurately beam down lasers to provide internet connections.

Maguire said Aquila will go through several more test flights and hopes it will soon break the world record for the longest solar-powered unmanned aircraft flight, which currently stands at two weeks.

Solar Impulse 2, a manned plane powered solely by solar energy, is currently on a round-the-world trip and will set the record for longest flight for an aircraft of its type if it completes the journey.

Facebook, which has more than 1.6 billion users, has invested billions of dollars in getting more people online, both through an initiative called internet.org - which offers a pared-down version of the internet to poor areas - and by building drones.

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