Facebook has announced that it has completed the first flight of its UK-developed solar-powered, high-altitude drone aircraft known as Aquila, designed to provide internet connectivity to remote regions.
The Aquila was developed over the past two years by the company’s UK-based aerospace unit and will boost the Internet.org project set up in partnership with other tech firms.
Internet.org aims to benefit the estimated more than four billion people who are not yet online, and has already connected more than 1 billion people by working with mobile operators. But Aquila will help reach the 10% of the world’s population living in remote locations where technologies used everywhere else are not feasible.
Aquila’s laser communication technology was developed by Facebook’s Connectivity Lab’s communications team in the US and will be used to deliver data at tens of Gbps, roughly 10 times faster than the previous technology, according to Facebook.
The Aquila was developed in the UK with the help of expertise acquired through Facebook’s purchase of UK aerospace five-member start-up Ascenta, led by chief engineer Andrew Cox, in 2014 for £12.5m. The drone was tested in Yuma in the US state of Arizona.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said while the test flight was a milestone, there was still a lot of work to do to solve “some difficult engineering challenges”.
Aquila has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 737’s, it has a mass of less than 500kg thanks to its carbon-fibre frame. But, according to Zuckerberg, development teams are working to find ways of making the aircraft even lighter. Almost half the drone’s mass comes from the aircraft’s batteries, a lot of weight to put on large, flexible wings, he said.