Facebook wants to blanket the planet with Internet connectivity, and it’s developed a huge, solar-powered aircraft to help it do so.
Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook’s solar-powered Internet plane Aquila has taken flight. In a video posted to his Facebook page, Zuckerberg introduced the 140-foot wingspan aircraft that is designed to provide Internet access to remote regions.
The unmanned aircraft, called Aquila, has the wingspan of a Boeing 737, but weighs “about the third of a [Toyota] Prius car,” said Facebook vice president of infrastructure engineering Jay Parikh Thursday during a media event at Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park.
Aquila will be responsible for beaming Internet signals back to rural areas on Earth that lack the kind of communications infrastructure needed to maintain Internet connectivity. According to Parikh, 10% of the world’s population live in these rural areas—found in certain regions in Africa and India, among others—and are unable to access the web.
“This effort is important because 10% of the world’s population lives in areas without existing internet infrastructure. To affordably connect everyone, we need to build completely new technologies.” wrote Parikh.
Facebook plans to launch the plane into the sky with the help of a big balloon that will carry the aircraft to the stratosphere. There it will hover between altitudes at around 60,000 to 90,000 feet. At these altitudes, the aircraft will be far above the airspace where commercial airliners fly and free from storms or other weather disturbances, Parikh explained.
Facebook said it also achieved a breakthrough for the way data and information can be transferred from drone to drone. If Facebook flies multiple planes it could be able to cover much larger swaths of land.
Using laser communication technology, Facebook supposedly created a way to stream data between drones at a rate of ten gigabits per second, a speed that’s as fast as what fiber-optic services can provide to U.S. residents, such as those living in Minneapolis.
The breakthrough in laser communications is a result of the software-based networking advancements Facebook has been rolling out in its data centers, Parikh explained.
The accuracy is important if drones are to be able to send signals to and from each other, which would result in less Internet infrastructure needed to be built on the ground.
Of course, it’s important to remember that Facebook is not close to launching these planes to power the Internet just yet. Facebook has only built one drone so far, with plans for more coming down the pipeline.
Parikh wouldn’t estimate when Facebook might plant to fly multiple drones over the Earth.
“This will be an effort that we will invest in for many years to come. As of now , the plan of this year second half is doing flight testing,” Parikh said.
Regardless, Facebook is expected to test Aquila in the US later this year, but it is unclear as to when exactly that will be. “We still have a long way to go in this work, but we are excited by our early progress,” Facebook said in a blog post. “We plan to engage with the broader community and share what we’ve learned, so we can all move faster in the development of these technologies.”