A drone with the wingspan of a commercial airliner but the power consumption of a hair dryer lumbered into the air over Arizona last month, a milestone in Facebook's effort to bring Internet access to unconnected areas of the world.
The drone, named Aquila, is one tool in Facebook's arsenal of experimental Internet access delivery methods, which also include, satellites, lasers, and cellular access points. Aquila remained in the air for 96 minutes during its test flight on June 28, but it will eventually fly for weeks at a time, beaming Internet signals up to 60 miles away.
At cruising speed, it will consume 5,000 watts of power from its solar panels and batteries, though at the test flight altitude of 2,150 feet, it only consumed 2,000 watts. Hair dryers typically use between 1,500 and 2,000 watts.
While Facebook's head of engineering and infrastructure, Jay Parikh, considered the test flight to be a success, he acknowledged that a lot of work still needs to be done before the drones can serve their intended purpose.
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"In fact, to reach our goal of being able to fly over a remote region and deliver connectivity for up to three months at time, we will need to break the world record for solar-powered unmanned flight, which currently stands at two weeks," he wrote in a blog post. "This will require significant advancements in science and engineering to achieve. It will also require us to work closely with operators, governments and other partners to deploy these aircraft in the regions where they'll be most effective."
One of the next steps is to test Facebook's Internet-beaming system, which will be attached to Aquila. Already in development, early lab tests show that the laser can deliver data at tens of gigabytes per second to a dime-sized target more than 10 miles away.
But even if the lasers and drones work as well in the real world as they do in the lab and during test flights, Facebook still faces political challenges in delivering its Internet access. The company's Free Basics service, which is already beaming free Internet to developing countries via satellite, has faced bans in Egypt and India over net neutrality concerns.