Social media giant Facebook announced Thursday the first successful flight of its unmanned solar-powered aircraft — the Aquila drone. The ambitious project hopes to bring the internet to remote parts of the world by beaming down internet connections.
Aquila was developed at a warehouse in Bridgwater, Somerset, in England by U.K.-based Ascenta, a drone designer that specializes in solar-powered drones. Facebook bought Ascenta in March 2014 and its owner Andy Cox is now the engineer behind Project Aquila.
The aircraft is expected to use new laser-beam technology to provide access to fast internet for people in a 60-mile radius as it circles the area above. The signal it emits will be received by the antennas of small towers and dishes on the ground, which will convert the signal into Wi-Fi or 4G networks.
According to Facebook, the drone’s wingspan is wider than a Boeing 737, but because of its carbon fiber composition, it weighs less than 1,000 pounds — almost the same as a grand piano or a car. Its power consumption stands at about 5,000 watts, which is roughly the same as three hairdryers. Facebook is making attempts to refine the current model by making it even lighter and more energy efficient.
Aquila’s first flight took place on June 28 in Arizona and surpassed all expectations, Facebook said. The original plan was to fly the drone for 30 minutes but it stayed in the air for 96 minutes — three times longer than planned. The final prototype will be designed to fly non-stop for three months.
In March 2015, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg had revealed that the company was testing drones in the skies over the U.K., as part of the company’s internet.org campaign.
In a statement Thursday, Jay Parikh, Facebook’s head of engineering and infrastructure, said: “We’re encouraged by this first successful flight, but we have a lot of work ahead of us ... In our next tests, we will fly Aquila faster, higher and longer, eventually taking it above 60,000 feet.”
“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,” Parikh added.
The company already has had to face challenges in its pursuit of making the internet available all across the world. Previously, India rejected the Facebook Free Basics project — access to limited, free web access via citizens’ mobile phones — over suspicions that it would affect net neutrality and give the company an inordinate amount of power.
Facebook will also face competition in the race to develop airborne mobile connectivity platforms from Google’s Project Loon, which aims to deliver internet connectivity from a network of high-altitude balloons.