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Facebook’s solar-powered drone takes flight

22 July 2016

Facebook’s Connectivity Lab announced a big milestone: the first full-scale test flight of Aquila, its high-altitude unmanned aircraft designed to connect hundreds of people.

Aquila in flight (Credit: Facebook Connectivity Labs)

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 60,000ft using laser communications and millimetre 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 5,000W — the same amount as three hair dryers, or a high-end microwave.

The company have been flying a one-fifth scale version of Aquila for several months, but this was the first time its been flown to full-scale. This test flight was designed to verify operational models and overall aircraft design. To prove out the full capacity of the design, Connectivity Labs will push Aquila to the limits in a lengthy series of tests in the coming months and years. 

This first functional check was a low-altitude flight, and it was so successful that Aquila ended up flying for more than 90 minutes — three times longer than originally planned. The check was able to verify several performance models and components, including aerodynamics, batteries, control systems, and crew training. In its next tests, Aquila will fly faster, higher and longer, eventually taking it above 60,000ft.

Image courtesy of Facebook Connectivity Labs

To reach the goal of being able to fly over a remote region and deliver connectivity for up to three months at time, Aquila will need to break the world record for solar-powered unmanned flight, which currently stands at two weeks. This will require significant advancements in science and engineering to achieve. It will also require Connectivity Labs to work closely with operators, governments and other partners to deploy these aircraft in the regions where they’ll be most effective.

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.

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