Facebook's (NASDAQ: FB) Connectivity Lab announced a big milestone toward its goal of providing internet to the unconnected: The first full-scale test flight of Aquila, its high-altitude unmanned aircraft.
The solar-powered airplane, which has the wingspan of a Boeing 737 but weighs hundreds of times less, underwent its first flight at dawn on June 28, 2016, at the Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was there, along with a slew of engineers. Aquila was built by a team comprised of aerospace, software, operator and other experts with experience at NASA, Boeing, DARPA, Northrup Grumman and the British Royal Air Force, among others.
Facebook reported that the low-altitude flight was so successful that they ended up flying Aquila for more than 90 minutes – three times longer than originally planned. They were able to verify several performance models and components, including aerodynamics, batteries, control systems and crew training.
While Facebook's engineers have been flying a one-fifth scale version of Aquila for several months, this was the first time they've flown the full-scale aircraft, wrote Jay Parikh, global head of engineering and infrastructure at Facebook, in a blog post. Parikh was recently named a Fierce Disrupter due in large part to his work in Facebook's Connectivity Lab and Telecom Infra Project.
Parikh said the test flight was designed to verify operational models and overall aircraft design. "To prove out the full capacity of the design, we will push Aquila to the limits in a lengthy series of tests in the coming months and years," he wrote. Similar to how Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) has worked with its experimental Project Loon, failures are expected and sometimes even planned, but that's how they quickly eliminate what doesn't work and move ahead.
According to a fact sheet provided by Facebook, Aquila, when deployed, will be part of a fleet of airplanes beaming internet signals to people within a 60-mile communications diameter for up to 90 days at a time. It will fly at altitudes between 60,000 and 90,000 feet – above commercial aircraft and above the weather – and it will use free space laser communications as a mechanism for communicating between aircraft in the fleet and E-band technology to beam connectivity from the airplane to receivers on the ground. The team designed and lab-tested a laser that can deliver data at tens of Gbps, or about 10x faster than the previous state-of-the-art, to target the size of a dime more than 10 miles away.
There's still a lot of work ahead. In order to reach its goal of being able to fly over a remote region and deliver connectivity for up to three months at time, the Connectivity Lab needs to break the world record for solar-powered unmanned flight, which currently stands at two weeks, Parikh said. That requires significant advancements in science and engineering. "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," he said.
Similar to how Google has operated with Project Loon, the times when Facebook shares what it's learned from flying plane-sized drones are few and far between. As Business Insider noted last year, Facebook goes to great lengths to conceal testing related to its drones. Information about airborne tests conducted by Facebook drone subsidiary FCL Tech involves multiple applications for air-to-ground communications in the E-band.
In a Feb. 22, 2016, filing, FCL requested that confidential information submitted to the FCC be withheld from public disclosure for an indefinite period, citing the competitive nature of the business. In June, the FCC granted at least two FCL applications to test using the E-band in Camarillo, California, using the 71-76 GHz band, among other frequencies. Interestingly, as part of the grant, prior to using the 12.2-12.75 GHz band, FCL Tech must notify DirecTV and Dish Network by e-mail.
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