With the first full-scale test flight last week, of a high-altitude solar-powered unmanned aircraft named Aquila, Facebook has taken its ambitious idea of providing internet access to remote areas higher. The company, which has flown a one-fifth scale version of the airplane for several months, has used the full-blown version to test the overall aircraft design and its operational models.
Having a wingspan of 42 meters, equal to that of a Boeing 737, but reportedly weighing less than 400kg due to the use of carbon fiber material in its construction, Aquila successfully flew for over 90 minutes — an hour more than engineers had originally scheduled for the test-flight. This extra time allowed ground crew to verify several more performance models and components, including aerodynamics, batteries, control systems and crew training. Speaking about the flight, Jay Parikh, global head of engineering at Facebook said, “In our next tests, we will fly Aquila faster, higher and longer, eventually taking it above 60,000 feet.”
When complete, Aquila will be able to circle a region up to 100km in diameter at a height of more than 30,000 meters for up to three months at a time and provide connectivity using laser communications and millimeter wave systems at speeds of up to 2.1Gigabytes per second. The company reportedly wants to have a fleet of about 10,000 Aquila aircraft flying to areas where and when they are needed.
However, experts point out that command and control of such a large number of drones could be a problem. To put this in perspective, 10,000 remote controlled aircraft are more than the number of drones currently being operated by all the militaries of the world combined.