Facebook said it is ready to begin the pilot program of a high-altitude drone that will beam the Internet to remote parts of the world. The solar-powered drone will be able to fly without landing for three months.
Aquila has a 40-meter (130-foot) wingspan - on par with a Boeing 737 - weighs less than a car, and can stay aloft at an altitude of 20,000 to 30,000 meters for three months at a time. Test flights will begin later this year.
Facebook's head Mark Zuckerberg announced Aquila in a video posted to his personal page on Thursday night.
"This effort is important because 10 percent of the world’s population lives in areas without existing internet infrastructure," Zuckerberg wrote. "To affordably connect everyone, we need to build completely new technologies.
"Using aircraft to connect communities using lasers might seem like science fiction," he continued. "But science fiction is often just science before its time. Over the coming months, we will test these systems in the real world and continue refining them so we can turn their promise into reality."
"A full-scale version of Aquila - the high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft designed by our aerospace team in the UK - is now complete and ready for flight testing," said Jay Parikh, Facebook's vice president of global engineering and infrastructure.
Lasers, solar, and drones, oh my!
The team's engineering director Yael Maguire told reporters this is "a significant milestone" and could "quickly bring connectivity to an area that needs it." The drone is made of rigid and light weight layers of carbon fiber that allow it to stay aloft and withstand freezing temperatures.
The drone will fly in a circle with a radius of about 3 kilometers, which the engineers hope will beam Internet 50-kilometer radius area.
"Our goal is to accelerate the development of a new set of technologies that can drastically change the economics of deploying internet infrastructure," wrote Parikh in a blog post. "We are exploring a number of different approaches to this challenge, including aircraft, satellites and terrestrial solutions."
The drone is solar powered and uses laser optic communications to provide high speed data connections. In his post accompanying the announcement video, Zuckerberg claimed that this is a "breakthrough in laser communications technology."
"We've successfully tested a new laser that can transmit data at 10 gigabits per second," Zuckerberg wrote. "That's ten times faster than any previous system, and it can accurately connect with a point the size of a dime from more than 10 miles (16 km) away."
"When finished, our laser communications system can be used to connect our aircraft with each other and with the ground, making it possible to create a stratospheric network that can extend to even the remotest regions of the world," Parikh said.
A eye to the future
Parikh added that Facebook is looking to provide the new technology to "other partners."
"We're not going to operate this ourselves," he said. "We're focused on finding ways to drive the industry to move faster."
Aquila was developed with the British aerospace startup Ascenta, which Facebook acquired last year. The prototype drone was built and tested in the UK, and Facebook said it's now looking at an undisclosed site in the US to test the full-size craft.
Facebook's Connectivity Lab unveiled its plan to "deliver the internet to everyone" last year by harnessing solar, laser, and developing drone technologies. The Connectivity lab is part of Facebook's "Internet.org" initiative to bring the internet to developing countries.
Other tech companies such as Google and Microsoft are also experimenting with how to transmit Internet signals using balloons, drones, satellites, and TV waves.
Another related project from Facebook is looking at providing free limited mobile Internet service to people in poor countries.
mes/jil (AFP, AP, dpa)