First Successful Flight for Facebook’s Solar-Powered Internet Drone

A drone would hopefully help Facebook extend internet connectivity to every corner of the planet. The company expressed this hope after successfully completing a test flight of a solar-powered drone for this purpose.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a post on his Facebook page that the test was conducted in Yuma, Arizona where Aquila, Facebook’s lightweight, high-altitude aircraft, flew at a few thousand feet for 96 minutes. The plan of Facebbok is to enable a fleet of such drones to communicate with each other to deliver internet access while they for at least three months at a time at 60,000 feet (18,290 meters). This is the ultimate hope of the company that has the largest social media platform in the world.

Project Loon, a similar project by Google parent Alphabet Inc aims to use a network of high-altitude balloons to make the internet available to remote parts of the world. The company has also poured money into delivering internet access to under served areas.

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

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

Through the use of it’s a fleet of Aquila, Facebook  hopes to reach some of the 4 billion people that don’t have internet access. Aquila is an unmanned plane designed to circle an area 60 miles in diameter and is run on solar power.

Making the drone Aquila lighter so it can fly for longer periods, creating communications networks that allow it to rapidly transfer data and accurately beam down lasers to provide internet connections and getting it to fly at 60,000 feet were the challenges that were laid out by Zuckerberg as the biggest challenges for the company in flying a fleet of Aquila.

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

An initiative called internet.org – which offers a pared-down version of the internet to poor areas – and by building drones, Facebook, which has more than 1.6 billion users, hopes to get more people online and has already invested billions of dollars in these projects.

The Somerset-based company Ascenta, which Facebook bought for around £12.5 million in 2014, has developed the technology that powers the drone which beams a signal down from a 60,000-foot height using lasers and millimeter wave systems.

“Aquila is designed to be hyper efficient, so it can fly for up to three months at a time. The aircraft has the wingspan of an airliner, but at cruising speed it will consume only 5,000 watts – the same amount as three hair dryers, or a high-end microwave,” said Jay Parikh, Facebook’s head of engineering and infrastructure. “Significant advancements in science and engineering” would be required as the project is ambitious, said Parikh.

(Adapted from Reuters & The Telegraph)

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