The drone project was developed by Facebook’s Connectivity Lab. For 96-minutes last month, the company flew a 140-foot wide unmanned drone over Yuma, Arizona. It was the first successful test flight of Facebook’s full-scale Aquila drone. It is designing the boomerang-shaped aircraft to beam-connectivity down to billions of people who don’t currently have access to the internet.
Eventually, Facebook (, Tech30) hopes entire fleets of the carbon-fiber drones will fly for up to 90-days at a time in the stratosphere, between 60,000 and 90,000 feet. (The test flight only went up to 2,150 feet above sea level.) The drones will be solar powered and use lasers to deliver internet connections receivers on the ground, up to 30 miles in any direction. The connections will be fast, with speeds up to tens of thousands of gigabytes per second.
The test also collected data on Aquila’s aerodynamic performance at low altitude, its battery and power usage, and the effectiveness of the autopilot system. Like other autonomous drones, Aquila can be remotely commanded to fly by GPS waypoints, but all of the actual flying is done by the autopilot without direct human control. And this flight was the first opportunity to test the performance of the autopilot on a full-sized drone under real-world atmospheric conditions.
The goal of Aquila is to provide what has been described as an “atmospheric satellite” capability—the drones will fly for up to three months at a time, orbiting over remote areas and providing connectivity for a circle as much as 60 miles in diameter, using a laser-based network “backbone” and radio signals for local bandwidth. Because of its lift-to-weight ratio, Aquila can fly as slowly as 25 miles per hour in level flight.
Yael Maguire, Facebook’s engineering director and head of its Connectivity Lab, said in an interview that the company initially hoped Aquila would fly for 30 minutes.
“We’re thrilled about what happened with our first flight,” Maguire said. “There are still a lot of technical challenges that need to be addressed for us to achieve the whole mission.” He said he hoped the system might be brought into service “in the near future.”
Zuckerberg laid out the company’s biggest challenges in flying a fleet of Aquilas, including making the plane lighter so it can fly for longer periods, getting it to fly at 60,000 feet and creating communications networks that allow it to rapidly transfer data and accurately beam down lasers to provide internet connections.
Among the biggest challenges facing the Aquila team is getting enough sunlight to continually recharge the drone’s batteries so it can stay aloft at night. That will be a challenge during winter months—while the drone’s motors will only require about 5,000 watts of power to stay aloft at high altitude, it will have to fully recharge batteries with as little as 10 hours a day of sunlight in the expected range for Aquila’s operation. And those batteries will have to be as light as possible to allow Aquila to perform its mission. “Given current and projected battery performance,” Cox and Gomez noted, “that means batteries will account for roughly half the mass of the airplane. We’re pushing the edge of high-energy-density batteries while exploring the best designs to ensure we have enough resilience in the system.”
Facebook also hinted that it will need to partner with organisations such as governments and operators in order for the project to be a success.