Facebook has announced the successful first test flight of Aquila - a high-altitude, long-endurance solar airplane that can be used to bring access to affordable internet to hundreds of millions of people in the hardest-to-reach places.
During the low-altitude flight, Aquila remained in the air for 96 minutes, more than triple the minimum planned mission length.
Aquila is designed to take the internet to the unconnected. The first flight comes after the announcement of OpenCellular, another planned method to connect the over 1.6 billion people who live in remote locations with no access to mobile broadband networks. Both of these inititives are part of Facebook's Connectivity Lab, which is tasked with coming up with last mile solutions to the connectivity challenge.
The potential prize of getting the four billion people around the world who are not yet online is too big a prize for Facebook to pass on, and now the social network is looking to the skies to overcome the remaining barriers to universal connectivity.
Mobile operators may lack incentives to build infrastructure in remote places, but Facebook is able to leverage its financial might to bring internet access to large areas where the cost for telcos would be greater than the returns.
Aquila was built by a team of experts including aerospace, avionics, mechanical and software engineers, designers, technicians, operators and logistics specialists.
The aircraft is designed to fly in circles of 60 miles in diameter at an altitude of 60,000-90,000 feet, beaming connectivity down using laser communications and millimetre wave systems for up to three months at a time.
The aircraft has the wingspan of an airliner but is one third of the weight of a typical car, but at cruising speed it will consume only 5,000 watts — the same amount as three hair dryers, or a high-end microwave. Facebook has flown a 1/5th-scale version of Aquila for several months, but this was the first flight of the full-scale aircraft.
This test flight was designed to verify the operational models and overall aircraft design. To prove out the full capacity of the design, Facebook will push Aquila to the limits in a lengthy series of tests in the coming months and years. As encouraging as the first successful flight is, there is still plenty of work to be done.
To reach the goal of being able to fly over a remote region and deliver connectivity for up to three months at time, Facebook will need to work closely with operators, governments, and other partners to deploy these aircraft in the regions where they'll be most effective.
However, these efforts could face some regulatory challenges going forward. Before it can be rolled out, Facebook's Aquila needs to overcome hurdles around the use of the spectrum, airspace access, and the airworthiness of its drones.
The laser connections are relatively easy to regulate. As it stands, light is not regulated, so the spectrum is completely open for Facebook to use.
Despite putting up the infrastructure to get people connected to the internet, Facebook has said that it is not looking to be an ISP or a telco operator. The social network's involvement will solely be in the provision of tech, backend solutions and last-mile connectivity for internet service providers and mobile operators to piggyback on and operate at a ground level.
For spectrum, Facebook's case was presented at the 2015 World Radiocommunication Congress in Geneva, where it was granted the ability to study high-frequency millimeter wave spectrums such as the ones to be deployed on Aquila.
Facebook expects that the commercial deployment of the aircraft will take some time, up to three years according to some estimates. In the meantime, they will need to convince governments of the merits of these connectivity initiatives in order to facilitate the testing and deployment of drones in the target countries' airspace.
When it comes to government relations, Facebook faced resistance from Egypt and India when it sought to roll out Free Basics in those countries. The argument was that Facebook was violating net neutrality principles by zero-rating internet access for its services and adding a few approved apps on the side. By getting in on the provision of internet access, Facebook would essentially be in control of how these people get online, and that presents a whole new level of challenges to net neutrality.
We have previously looked at how Facebook's OpenCellular compares with other connectivity projects aimed at getting people in remote areas online. It should be interesting to see how well Aquila will perform, and what this means for telcos and other service providers looking to grow their presence, particularly in Africa.
Cover Image: Aquila in position prior to takeoff. (From left: Kathryn Cook, technical program manager for Aquila; Yael Maguire, head of Connectivity Lab; Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO; Jay Parikh, global head of engineering and infrastructure)