What has the wingspan of an airliner and can fly on the power of roughly three hair dryers? The answer: Facebook’s Aquila, a solar-powered, unmanned aircraft that will beam the Internet to remote parts of the world.
On June 28, Aquila took its first flight, sitting on a type of trailer bed being pulled by a truck and finally disconnecting and elegantly lifting over a runway cutting through the vast, scraggly desert of Yuma, Ariz.
“After two years of development, it was emotional to see Aquila actually get off the ground,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared on Facebook July 21.
“But as big as this milestone is,” he continued, “we still have a lot of work to do. Eventually, 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.”
To accomplish that, Zuckerberg explained, Facebook’s engineering team will need to address some challenges. These include reducing Aquila’s weight (which is currently around 1,000 pounds); reducing the amount of energy required to keep Aquila cruising; reducing the load, which is largely made up of high-energy batteries; and improving Aquila’s ability to transfer data.
Goals for Aquila include enabling it to stay in the air for 90 consecutive days, serve Internet connectivity to a 60-mile diameter and transfer data more than 10 times faster than existing systems, using beams to “hit a dime more than 11 miles away while in motion,” Zuckerberg wrote.
In a separate test, Facebook engineers shared that the flight test, while planned for 30 minutes, lasted 96 minutes, while the team collected valuable data on aspects of the craft’s performance, including its radios, aerodynamic handling, batteries, motors and structural viability.
That first test was powered only by batteries and used 2,000 watts (the “three hair dryers” estimate is 5,000 watts); but the plan is eventually to include solar cells. Aquila will need to collect enough energy during daylight hours to stay aloft overnight—an act that, flying at a nighttime altitude of 60,000 feet, is expected to require those 5,000 watts.
“We are still analyzing the results of the extended test, including a structural failure we experienced just before landing,” engineers Martin Luis Gomez and Andrew Cox, wrote on Facebook. “We hope to share more details on this and other structural tests in the future. To prove out the full capacity of the design, we will continue to push the plane to its limits under more extreme conditions in a lengthy series of tests.”
Facebook’s primary competitor in the space is Google, which has also designed and tested an unmanned aircraft for delivering high-speed Internet.
Google’s Solara 50 has a wingspan of about 164 feet (Aquila’s is a little more than 113 feet) and mimics, by its broad strokes, a typical airplane silhouette, while Aquila is just the wide V of an airliner’s wings.
Little has been heard about Google’s plans for Solara 50, since a model crashed last spring during a test flight. A spokesperson told Bloomberg at the time: “Part of building a new technology is overcoming hurdles along the way.”