Facebook’s goal to bring internet to the world came one step closer on Thursday. The company revealed that its experimental solar powered aircraft, named Aquila, designed to beam connections to remote regions, has completed its first successful test flight. Once deployed, the drones will use lasers to relay internet to the 1.6 billion people around the world who don’t have access to it.
On June 28, the team was able to fly Aquila for 90 minutes. A successful test flight is judged as a third of that, so Facebook’s creation passed with flying colors. The project has been in the works for two years, with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg promising to launch the project this year in his 2016 New Year’s resolution post.
A video released last summer shows Aquila in development and offered this illustration of how it’ll beam down internet access to areas that don’t have it via traditional methods:
Aquila is huge. It has about the same wingspan as a Boeing 737, but despite its size, the company claims it runs on the equivalent power of about three hairdryers. The machine weighs a fraction of traditional airplanes, and has little chance of colliding with them: Zuckerberg’s drones will fly 60,000 to 90,000 feet high, much higher than other planes.
“There’s Still a Lot of Work Ahead”
“It was an incredible moment in my life to be standing there watching as Aquila lifted off the dolly and into the sky at dawn,” writes Yael Maguire of Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, the team behind Aquila. He later notes: “There is still a lot more work ahead.”
Jay Parikh, Facebook’s vice president of engineering, echoes that sentiment in a post about the project: “To reach our goal of being able to fly over a remote region and deliver connectivity for up to three months at time, we will need to break the world record for solar-powered unmanned flight, which currently stands at two weeks. In the coming months, we’ll dig into the wealth of data we’ve gathered from this test, run many more tests, and continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible in the science and engineering here.”
One of the most important results of the test was that the aircraft acted as simulations expected. That’s crucial for Facebook’s connectivity goals: these planes are meant to stay in the air for months at a time. The longest ever solar-powered flight was two weeks, so the company has set itself a big task. Knowing that these simulations are reliable will help Facebook’s ground-based work on achieving this goal.
“Flying Aquila was a huge step toward bringing the internet and all the opportunities that come with it to more people,” said Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer, in a post. “I’m excited to see what we can do next.”
Schroepfer added that “eventually we’ll add solar cells, instrumentation, and payload — all of which will require even more innovative engineering and design.”
We’ve seen images of Aquila — Latin for “eagle” and the name of this constellation — before. But this video’s goosebump-supplying inspirational quality makes clear Zuckerberg’s ambitions: to make sure everybody on the planet has access to the internet — for basic services, and yes, that most definitely will include Facebook. It’s not clear if that internet will be free though. There are other questions, too. Zuckerberg came in for extreme criticism last fall when a plan to offer internet in India included access to a specific set of sites (so, not the open web).
In the video released on Wednesday, Zuckerberg appears on-screen only briefly, high-fiving with the crew who presumably engineered and designed Aquila. While’s Zuckerberg’s the face of Facebook, Aquila’s the star here: