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Facebook connectivity lifts off

The aircraft can beam connectivity down from an altitude of more than 60,000 feet using laser communications and millimeter wave systems

The solar-powered Aquila in flight
The solar-powered Aquila in flight

Facebook’s Connectivity Lab has completed the first full-scale test flight of its high-altitude unmanned aircraft, Aquila. The company wants to use the solar-powered drone to bring regional internet connectivity to billions of people in the “hardest-to-reach places”.


This first functional check was a low-altitude flight over Yuma, Arizona, which verified operational models as well as the overall aircraft design. “It was so successful that we ended up flying Aquila for more than 90 minutes -- three times longer than originally planned,” said Jay Parikh, global head of engineering and infrastructure at Facebook.


When complete, Aquila will be able to circle a region up to 60 miles in diameter, beaming connectivity down from an altitude of more than 60,000 feet using laser communications and millimeter wave systems. Aquila is designed to be hyper-efficient, so it can fly for up to three months at a time, the company said.


While it has the wingspan of an airliner at cruising speed it will consume only 5,000 watts -- equivalent to three hair dryers, or a high-end microwave.


Although, encouraged by this first successful flight, in a blog statement on the company website Parikh cautioned that there was still a lot of work to be done. “In our next tests, we will fly Aquila faster, higher and longer, eventually taking it above 60,000 feet. Each test will help us learn and move faster toward our goal,” he said.


“To prove out the full capacity of the design, we will push Aquila to the limits in a lengthy series of tests in the coming months and years,” he continued. “Failures are expected and sometimes even planned; we learn more when we push the plane to the brink.”


For Facebook to reach its goal of being able to fly Aquila over a remote region and deliver connectivity for up to three months at time, it will need to break the world record for solar-powered unmanned flight, which stands at two weeks.


“This will require significant advancements in science and engineering to achieve,” added Parikh. “It will also require us to work closely with operators, governments and other partners to deploy these aircraft in the regions where they’ll be most effective.”


The Facebook Connectivity Lab was specifically formed by the social network to tackle the challenges of connecting people in remote locations by building new technologies including aircraft and satellite and communication systems.

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