Internet access can offer life-changing opportunities and experiences to all of us, but there are still 4 billion people without it. That’s 60% of the global population. As many as 1.6 billion of those unconnected people live in remote locations with no access to mobile broadband networks, where implementing existing network technologies is so challenging and costly that it will take years to bring everyone affordable access.
As part of Facebook’s commitment to Internet.org, the Facebook Connectivity Lab has been formed to build new technologies — including aircraft, satellites, and wireless communications systems — to help solve this problem more quickly.
Yesterday, Connectivity Lab announced a big milestone in this work: the first full-scale test flight of Aquila, Facebook’s high-altitude unmanned aircraft. 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. Aquila is designed to be hyper efficient, so it can fly for up to three months at a time.
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.
One-fifth scale version of Aquila has been flying for several months, but this was the first time Facebook has flown the full-scale aircraft. This test flight was designed to verify it’s operational models and overall aircraft design.
To prove out the full capacity of the design, Connectivity Lab will push Aquila to the limits in a lengthy series of tests in the coming months and years. Failures are expected and sometimes even planned.
This first functional check was a low-altitude flight, and it was so successful that Connectivity Lab ended up flying Aquila for more than 90 minutes — three times longer than originally planned. they were able to verify several performance models and components, including aerodynamics, batteries, control systems, and crew training.
In the next tests, the Connectivity Lab will fly Aquila faster, higher and longer, eventually taking it above 60,000 feet. Each test will help to learn and move faster toward it’s goal.
To take a look inside Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, see the video below. Facebook says that it is an important part of their effort to bring connectivity to the billions of people who are unconnected today.