After revealing that it wants to use unmanned drone airships to beam the internet down to the estimated four billion people worldwide without it two years ago, social media giant Facebook on Thursday announced the first full-scale test flight of its solar-powered craft, Aquila.
“After two years of engineering, I’m proud to announce the successful first flight of Aquila — the solar-powered plane we designed to beam the internet to remote parts of the world,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a post.
Zuckerberg added, “On June 28th, we completed the first successful flight of Aquila — our solar-powered plane that will beam the internet to remote parts of the world and eventually break the record for longest unmanned aircraft flight.”
According to the post, the flight took place before dawn in Yuma, Arizona. Facebook’s original mission was to fly Aquila for 30 minutes, but things went quite well for the company and it decided to keep the plane up for 96 minutes.
We gathered lots of data about our models and the aircraft structure — and after two years of development, it was emotional to see Aquila actually get off the ground, Zuckerberg noted
He said that “Our goal is to have a fleet of Aquilas flying together at 60,000 feet, communicating with each other with lasers and staying aloft for months at a time — something that’s never been done before.”
The company is working on to make the aircraft more efficient and doing necessary changes in that direction.
Aquila has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 737 but has to weigh as little as possible to stay up for as long as possible. That is why the body of the plane is made of a carbon fibre composite so the whole thing weighs less than 1,000 pounds — or about the same as a grand piano.
The company is working to make it lighter.
The amount of energy Aquila collects from the sun during the day has to be enough to keep its propellers, communications payload, avionics, heaters and light systems running when it’s dark.
That means using about 5,000W of power at cruising altitude, or about as much as three hairdryers. Facebook is looking for ways to trim this down and make our systems more efficient.
Aquila is mostly self-sufficient, but it still relies on a ground crew of about a dozen engineers, pilots and technicians who direct, maintain and monitor the aircraft. They control the aircraft through software which allows them to determine heading, altitude and airspeed — or send Aquila on a GPS-based route.
Takeoff and landing are automatic since no human pilot can land in a precise location as well as software can.
One of the most surprising things is how slow the aircraft goes. In order to use the least amount of energy, Aquila needs to go as slow as possible. At higher altitudes, where the air is thinner, the craft goes at about 80 mph.
In order to take off, fly and land, Aquila’s wings and propellers have to be able to operate both at high, cold altitudes and lower, warmer altitudes where the air can be 10 times denser.
The company said they are working to figure out how much power that takes — and what impact it will have on solar panel performance, battery size, latitude range and seasonal performance.
“Over the next year, we’re going to keep testing Aquila — flying higher and longer, and adding more planes and payloads. It’s all part of our mission to connect the world and help more of the 4 billion people who are not online access all the opportunities of the internet, Zuckerberg concluded.