Facebook Tests a Solar-Powered Internet Drone

On June 28th, Facebook launched Aquila, a high-altitude, unmanned solar-powered airplane, for its first flight at Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Ariz.

Although the team has been running tests and practice flights for months, until this point, only a 1/5th scale airplane had been tested.

The full scale plane has a wingspan larger than a Boeing 737. To supply power for 14-hour winter nights, half of Aquila’s mass is devoted to batteries for storing the solar power collected during the day. Despite its size, it weighs about the third of an electric car, thanks to a carbon-fiber frame.                       

As the plane was performing so well, the low-altitude test flight lasted 96 minutes—over an hour longer than originally intended. At a cruising altitude of 2,150 feet above sea level, Aquila consumed 2,000 watts of power.

Aquila was developed by Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, an organization researching and producing new technologies to bring internet access to remote locations around the globe. According to Connectivity Lab, 1.6 billion people live in areas where traditional internet infrastructure, such as cell towers and fiber cables, are too expensive to implement. Connectivity Lab hopes Aquila is the solution.

Its goal is to create a fleet of solar-powered airplanes to deliver internet to people within a 60-mile communications diameter. The planes will fly between 60,000 and 90,000 feet (above commercial air traffic and the weather) and will remain in the air for up to 90 days at a time.

To learn more about Connectivity Lab, their projects and Aquila, visit https://info.internet.org/en/story/connectivity-lab.

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