Facebook has made no bones about wanting to blanket the planet with Internet connectivity, and it’s developed a huge, solar-powered aircraft to help it do so.
The unmanned aircraft, called Aquila, has the wingspan of a Boeing 737, but weighs “about the third of a [Toyota] Prius car,” said Facebook vice president of infrastructure engineering Jay Parikh Thursday during a media event at Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park.
Aquila will be responsible for beaming Internet signals back to rural areas on Earth that lack the kind of communications infrastructure needed to maintain Internet connectivity. According to Parikh, 10% of the world’s population live in these rural areas—found in certain regions in Africa and India, among others—and are unable to access the web.
A small team of Facebook engineers in the U.K. spent 14 months building the plane. Facebook wouldn’t say how many employees were involved in the project.
Aquila’s wings are made of a type of material called carbon fiber. When the carbon fiber material undergoes a kind of heating process known as curing, it can become “stronger than steel for the same mass of material,” explained Facebook Connectivity Lab director Yael Maguire in a blog post. This material also accounts for why the drone is so light.
Facebook plans to launch the plane into the sky with the help of a big balloon that will carry the aircraft to the stratosphere. There it will hover between altitudes at around 60,000 to 90,000 feet. At these altitudes, the aircraft will be far above the airspace where commercial airliners fly and free from storms or other weather disturbances, Parikh explained.
The Facebook team also covered Aquila with solar panels and fitted the craft with batteries and an electric motor so the plane can stay up in the sky for 3 months. Over that time the drone will beam the Internet down without interruptions or a need for refueling.
And when the plane does come back to the planet, Maguire told reporters that it “will land like a glider” because of its aerodynamic design.
While in the air, Aquila will be responsible for providing the Internet to people on Earth in a 50-kilometer radius. Small cellular towers and dishes will receive the signals sent by the aircraft and will convert those signals “into a Wi-Fi or LTE network that people can connect to with their cellphones and smartphones.” Maguire wrote in the post.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com