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Facebook's Aquila Soars In Test Flight: Solar-Powered Drone Will Provide Internet Access To Everyone

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After years of development, Facebook's solar-powered, internet access-providing drone has successfully carried out its first test flight.

While Facebook has been flying a smaller version over the past months that is one-fifth the size, the test flight on June 28 in Yuma, Arizona was the first time the actual drone, named the Aquila, flew.

The Aquila is a part of Facebook's ambitious plan to provide internet connections to all parts of the globe, especially in areas where access is bad or virtually non-existent.

Upon the completion of the Aquila, Facebook said in a blog post that the drone will be able to beam down internet connections from a height of over 60,000 feet across regions covering a diameter of 60 miles. Aquila will utilize laser and millimeter wave systems for the task, and is expected to be up in the air for as long as three months before needing to land.

The laser that the Aquila will use is able to deliver data at speeds of 10s of Gbps, and is accurate enough to be able to hit a target the size of a dime from a distance of 10 miles away.

Amazingly, while the Aquila has a wingspan similar to an aircraft, it will only be consuming 5,000 watts at cruising speed. To put that into perspective, that amount of power is the same one consumed by three hair dryers, or a single high-end microwave oven. During the day, Aquila will fly using solar power and at night, it will be drawing power from its batteries, which take up around half of the drone's mass.

The fact sheet [PDF] on the drone revealed that the wings are created with cured carbon fiber, which is stronger than steel at the same amount of material. In addition, the weight of the wings is a hundred times lighter compared to that of an actual airplane's wings.

During the Aquila's test flight, Facebook was only expecting the drone to be able to fly for about 30 minutes at low-latitude heights. However, it was able to fly for over 90 minutes, exceeding expectations and starting off its testing with overwhelming success.

According to Facebook, the test flight was carried out for the verification of Aquila's operational model and its overall design, and Facebook was able to analyze several components and performance models from the 90-minute flight. The company added that there will be several more tests to be launched over the next months and years, with some failures to be expected and even planned as Facebook will push development further when the Aquila's limits are tested.

"Eventually, our goal is to have a fleet of Aquilas flying together at 60,000 feet, communicating with each other with lasers and staying aloft for months at a time — something that's never been done before," wrote Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg said earlier in the year that Facebook is looking to increase its user base to 5 billion by 2030, which will be made possible by connecting more people to the internet using Aquila.

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