Facebook’s Aquila solar drone takes flight

Posted on 24 Jul 2016 by Michael Cruickshank

A new solar powered drone produced by Facebook called ‘Aquila’ undertook its maiden flight last month.

The drone aircraft is designed by the company to help spread internet connectivity to large areas of the planet.

The maiden flight was announced in a post by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last week, wherein he claimed it was a major success.

“Our original mission was to fly Aquila for 30 minutes, but things went so well that we decided to keep the plane up for 96 minutes,” wrote Zuckerberg

“We gathered lots of data about our models and the aircraft structure – and after two years of development, it was emotional to see Aquila actually get off the ground.”

The flight itself took place before dawn in Yuma, Arizona and served as a proof of concept for the solar-powered aircraft.

Utilizing a flying wing, larger than that of a 737, covered in solar panels, Facebook is attempting to build an aircraft which can stay in the air for months at a time.

The body of the Aquila drone is made up of lightweight carbon fiber, and so despite its large size, it weighs in at only around 1000 pounds (453.6kg).

Facebook estimates that the wing-mounted solar panels need to generate 5kW of electricity to operate its propellers, as well as its onboard systems.

Internet to the world

The primary reason Facebook is developing this new, long-endurance drone is to extend global internet connectivity.

Eventually the company envisages having a large fleet of these aircraft operating at around 60,000 feet (18,288m) in constant communication with each other.

Each aircraft would feature communications equipment which would allow them to beam internet connectivity to a 60 mile (96.6km) arc of the surface below.

“It’s all part of our mission to connect the world and help more of the 4 billion people who are not online access all the opportunities of the internet,” said Zuckerberg.

This project by Facebook, mirrors a similar project underway by competitor Google, called Project Loon, which uses high altitude balloons rather than drone aircraft to spread internet connectivity.

From a business standpoint both of these companies see developing countries as key growth areas for them to move into, however internet penetration in these areas is often poor. As such, by expanding internet connectivity, these companies are also creating new markets for themselves.