Facebook’s plan to beam internet down to communities without suitable data infrastructure just got one step closer to becoming a reality. Aquila, the company’s high-altitude unmanned aircraft responsible for powering the service, took its first full-scale test flight, flying for 96 minutes at low-altitude.
The solar-powered UAV with a wingspan larger than a Boeing 737 jet will be able to fly for up to three months at a time between 60,000 and 90,000 feet in the air, according to Facebook, distributing a wireless signal down to users through lasers and millimeter wave systems. During the test flight, Aquila was using as much power as a hair dryer, about 2,000 watts, the company said.
Facebook’s moonshot undertaking to use drones and lasers to give internet to different parts of the world is an effort to connect the 1.6 billion people on the planet who live in places without access to it, and is part of Internet.org that aims to bring more people into the digital world.
The altruistic initiative will inevitably benefit the company. More people online means more people on Facebook, especially if they’re getting connected through the company itself. And that has some people concerned about just how much control Facebook will have over Facebook-provided data.
Already the company has run into problems trying to distribute connectivity to underserved communities. In February, India banned Facebook Free Basics, the service that gives mobile users free access to a light version of Facebook and other online services, because government regulators said Free Basics goes against net neutrality.
Facebook wants to “make the world more open and connected,” as CEO Mark Zuckerberg says as often as possible, and add to the 1.65 billion people who use the service. Internet.org provides resources for developers and app makers to build apps that can run in areas with slow wireless networks, and partners with carriers and internet service providers to help people purchase affordable data.
Aquila is the most high-profile (and high-flying) effort the company is undertaking to be sure, and it’s still in its early stages of development. It’s unclear how Facebook will ultimately use the drone that can distribute internet within a 60-mile diameter, and whether, like Free Basics, it will provide Facebook-selected services to the people within the communities who are powered by it. For now, Facebook is working on the engineering challenges, figuring out how to get enough sun to power the aircraft, build a lasting battery, and make it cost-effective.