Facebook has completed the construction of its first internet-beaming drone and will undertake a test flight in the US in the coming months.
The unmanned aircraft, Aquila, is part of the social network’s elaborate plan to provide connectivity using satellites, drones, and lasers. “Our mission in the company is to connect everybody in the world,” Jay Parikh, vice president of global engineering and infrastructure, said in a media briefing today (July 30). “There’s 4 billion people in the world that don’t have access to the internet, so we have a lot of work to do to connect everybody.”
The drone has achieved speed of “tens of gigabits per second,” about 10 times faster than existing technology. “This is an incredible milestone,” said Yael Maguire, engineering director at Facebook’s Connectivity Lab. “Being able to do that through space, through air has never been done.”
The company said it does not intend to be an internet service provider and will partner with local telecommunication companies to operate its service.
There were a number of challenges to designing an internet-beaming drone: a lightweight enough aircraft that can stay at an elevation of 60,000 to 90,000 feet (18,000 to 27,000 meters) and operate at -70 degrees Fahrenheit (-57 degrees Celsius) weather for three months straight. The result is a plane covered in solar panels that has an equivalent wingspan of a Boeing 737 (about 140 feet) and weighs just 880 pounds, or about a third of a Toyota Prius car. Most of the weight is from the structure itself—batteries and its carbon-fiber body—and the payload’s communication equipment weighs about 50 pounds.
To cut down on the craft’s weight, Aquila doesn’t have takeoff and landing equipment. Instead, a large helium balloon will bring the the aircraft to elevation (harking back to Google’s Project Loon, an experimental project to beam internet via balloons), and the plane will slowly glide down after running its three-month course.
Facebook has not said how many drones it will build, but the plan is to beam a ground-based fiber connection to a plane via lasers. That plane will then beam the connection to other nearby planes. Each plane will be able to cover an area with a radius of 3 kilometers.
A year ago, Facebook launched Internet.org, which has provided limited internet connection to 17 countries through partnerships with local telecom companies. But the initiative has been criticized for perpetuating economic racism by exploiting the poor through a charity-like initiative to increase its user baser. Its deployment has also come under fire for violating net neutrality principles in India because Internet.org provides access to just a few sites, including Facebook.
Maguire told Quartz that the company intends to provide “the full internet,” but also noted that it will work with network operators’ bandwidth needs and business models.