At dawn on June 28, Facebook’s Aquila drone took its first flight; it was a success and marked a new major milestone in Facebook’s effort to bring Internet access to remote parts of the world. Much like Google’s Project Loon — though distinctly different in many ways — Facebook’s eyeing the sky as a way to beam Internet to villages and rural communities below. Rather than using balloons, though, the social network has elected to use very wide but relatively light drones that sip solar power and can spend long periods of time in the sky.
This latest milestone was for Aquila’s first full-scale flight test, and it follows previous flight tests using a one-fifth scale rendition of the drone. In the coming months, Facebook will continue to test the drone, saying it will push Aquila to the brink with the expectation that it will fail at times, thereby shedding light on potential issues that can be addressed.
Aquila is very thin with a wide wingspan and relatively low power consumption — when operating at its cruising speed, the drone only uses 5,000 watts of energy, or about the power used by a high-end microwave. Facebook says the drone will, in its final form, be able to beam Internet to locations below from altitudes up to 60,000+ feet; it’ll also be able to travel with a diameter range of up to 60 miles.
As far as this full-scale test flight goes, Facebook says it was very successful, so much so that the team few it for more than an hour and a half, a whole 3x times longer than first planned. Future tests are already in the pipeline (Facebook doesn’t say when they’ll happen); next time around, the team will fly Aquila for a longer duration at a faster speed, with each test slowly taking the drone higher until it exceeds that 60,000ft altitude.