Social media giant Facebook announced the test launch of Aquila, a solar solar-powered high-altitude unmanned aircraft.
“After two years of engineering, I’m proud to announce the successful first flight of Aquila, the solar-powered plane we designed to beam internet to remote parts of the world,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a post on Thursday.
Aquila, is likely to benefit about four billion people (60 per cent of the global population), added Facebook.
The test flight was completed on June 28 in Yuma, Arizona. It flew for nearly 96 minutes due to favorable climate over the land against Facebook’s initial plans to fly Aquila for just 30 minutes.
Zuckerberg has confirmed the news.
“On June 28, we completed the first successful flight of Aquila — our solar-powered plane that will beam internet to remote parts of the world and eventually break the record for longest unmanned aircraft flight,” Zuckerberg added.
Aquila’s major features include its wingspan, which is wider than a Boeing 737. However, to make Aquila less bulky and to help it fly in the air for along time, its body is designed using carbon fiber composite. It enables the plane to weighs less than 1,000 pounds, which is roughly the weight of a grand piano, added engineers.
“When complete, Aquila will be able to circle a region up to 96 km in diameter, beaming connectivity down from an altitude of more than 60,000 feet using laser communications and millimeter wave systems,” said Jay Parikh, Global Head of Engineering and Infrastructure at Facebook.
Aquila has been designed to be most efficient to enable it to stay in the sky as long as three months. Though its wingspan equals that of an plane, its cruising speed is only 5,000 watts, same as that of three hair dryers or a high-end microwave.
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,” Zuckerberg added.
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.
“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 pointed out.