Facebook's Massive Solar-Powered Drone Takes Its First Flight

Facebook's Massive Solar-Powered Drone Takes Its First Flight

Facebook's Massive Solar-Powered Drone Takes Its First Flight.

Facebook's drone planned to beam the internet to places not yet associated has completed its first test flight. In the dark morning hours of June 28th, at 2AM, Mark Zuckerberg woke up and got on a plane. He was traveling to a flying testing facility in Yuma, AZ, where a small Facebook team had been working on a secret project. Their mission: to build, design, and launch a high-altitude solar-powered plane, in the faiths, that one day a fleet of the aircraft would provide internet access around the world.

The large drone — named Aquila — had an effective test flight and ended up remaining in the sky for 90 minutes, which Facebook said was three-times longer than planned. 

In March 2015 Aquila was declared at the F8 conference, and while flights have taken place on smaller models of the drone this is the first test of the full-sized version. Its main purpose, the company said, is to offer the internet to the 4 billion people in the world that don't have access. 

"Aquila is a solar-powered airplane that can be used to bring affordable internet to hundreds of millions of people in the hardest-to-reach places. 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," the company said in a statement. 

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

"Aquila is designed to be hyper-efficient, so it can fly for up to three months at a time," said Jay Parikh, Facebook's head of engineering and infrastructure. "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."

The project is ambitious, and will require "significant advancements in science and engineering", said Parikh. The current world record for an unmanned solar-powered flight is just two weeks. And this week's test flight is the first time the full-scale Aquila drone has flown. Till now, the company has been testing a version one-fifth of the size. 

The drone has a wingspan similar to a Boeing 737 and the finished product will require to fly at heights of between 60,000 to 90,000 for a period of three months. 

Even though it is large and likely to remain in flight for that amount of time, the unmanned device is estimated to only consume the same amount of energy as a microwave or a hair dryer. 

"Eventually, our goal is to have a fleet of Aquilas flying together at 60,000 feet, communicating with each other with lasers and staying aloft for months at a time — something that's never been done before," Zuckerberg wrote.

That aspiring goal is still more than a few years away, however. Zuckerberg notes there are still some major engineering hurdles to overcome, similar to how to make the craft even lighter and how to decrease its reliance on the ground crew that supports operate the plane.

The CEO said they will remain to do further tests over the next year, with the aim of getting Aquila to fly at higher altitude for longer periods of time.

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