Facebook’s Connectivity Lab completed the first successful test flight of its high-altitude unmanned aircraft called Aquila, as part of its efforts to bring the internet to unconnected people around the world.
The lab had been flying a one-fifth scale version of the solar powered plane for several months, but this was the first time it flew the full-scale aircraft.
However, there is still some time before Aquila will actually be put to use in the real world.
To be able to fly over a remote region and deliver connectivity for up to three months at time, Facebook said it will need to break the world record for solar-powered unmanned flight, which currently stands at two weeks.
This will require significant advances in science and engineering and the tech giant will work closely with operators, governments and other partners to deploy the aircrafts in regions where they’ll be most effective.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg pointed out that it wants to make the drone lighter, more energy efficient and better understand the actual in-flight dynamics.
Once complete, Aquila will be able to circle a region up to 60 miles in diameter, beaming connectivity down from an altitude of more than 60,000 feet using laser communications and millimeter wave systems.
The test flight was designed to verify operational models and overall design.
Facebook now plans to “push Aquila to the limits in a lengthy series of tests in the coming months and years”.
“Failures are expected and sometimes even planned; we learn more when we push the plane to the brink,” it said.
This first functional check was a low-altitude flight, lasting 90 minutes — three times longer than originally planned. In future tests, the firm wants to fly Aquila “faster, higher and longer”.
The aircraft is designed “to be hyper efficient” and can fly for up to three months at a time. At cruising speed it will consume 5,000 watts, “the same amount as three hair dryers, or a high-end microwave”.
Earlier this month, Facebook announced OpenCellular, an open source wireless access platform to bring connectivity to remote areas of the world that sits alongside Aquila and high-bandwidth laser beams in enabling connectivity in remote regions.