Several months ago when Facebook announced that it would be launching a program to provide free internet in developing countries via solar-powered airplanes, skeptics arose all around the world. Today, however, the company shut hundreds of mouths by launching its first solar-powered internet plane.
When I first saw the blog post from Facebook, the thing that caught my eye right-off-the-bat was the name of the aircraft. Facebook is calling their flying wonder ‘Aquila’. This is Latin for eagle and refers mainly to a constellation shaped as such. But that wasn’t why I was fascinated by the name. Gamers will know that Aquila is the name of the Protagonist’s ship in the game Assassin’s Creed 3.
While the craft is named an eagle, it sure does justice to the name. It has a wingspan of over 110 feet– much larger than a Boeing 737. And even though the vehicle is gigantic, it uses a mere 5,000 watts. That’s actually the same power used by three hair dryers or a high-end microwave oven.
The craft can 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. Facebook estimates that using this technology, it will be able to bring affordable internet to hundreds of millions of people in the hardest-to-reach places.
Today we’re proud to announce the first test flight of Aquila — it flies on roughly the power of three blowdryers! pic.twitter.com/qN8U5kj4uf
— Facebook (@facebook) July 21, 2016
Until now, the company was testing the tech by flying a one-fifth scale version of Aquila for several months. Today’s launch was the first time the full-scale plane saw take-off. Apparently, the estimated test time was 30 minutes, but because of the unbelievable success of the project, the testers at Facebook ended up flying the bird for almost 90 minutes.
Verification of various parameters including aerodynamics, batteries, control systems and crew training was done today. Future tests will take the eagle to higher altitudes and tap greater speeds for a longer duration.
The company’s Connectivity Lab, the branch working on Aquila, seems optimistic about the project. Jay Parikh, Global Head of Engineering and Infrastructure writes:
We’re encouraged by this first successful flight, but we have a lot of work ahead of us. In fact, to reach our goal of being able to fly over a remote region and deliver connectivity for up to three months at time, we 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 us to work closely with operators, governments and other partners to deploy these aircraft in the regions where they’ll be most effective.