Facebook has been testing a solar-powered airplane that provides internet access by beaming connectivity down from an altitude of more than 60,000 feet using laser communications and millimeter wave systems in areas of up to 60 miles (approx. 96km) in diameter. Aquila has been made to fly for a period of 3 months at a time, has the same wingspan as an ordinary airliner, but will only use up 5000 watts to fly, with Facebook comparing the power consumption to that of 3 hairdryers.
In a post Facebook explained why this kind of technology is important:
‘Internet access can offer life-changing opportunities and experiences to all of us, but there are still 4 billion people without it. That’s 60% of the global population. As many as 1.6 billion of those unconnected people live in remote locations with no access to mobile broadband networks, where implementing existing network technologies is so challenging and costly that it will take years to bring everyone affordable access. As part of our commitment to Internet.org, we formed the Facebook Connectivity Lab to build new technologies — including aircraft, satellites, and wireless communications systems — to help solve this problem more quickly.
This test flight was designed to verify our 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. Failures are expected and sometimes even planned; we learn more when we push the plane to the brink.
This first functional check was a low-altitude flight, and it was so successful that we ended up flying Aquila for more than 90 minutes — three times longer than originally planned. We were able to verify several performance models and components, including aerodynamics, batteries, control systems, and crew training. In our next tests, we will fly Aquila faster, higher and longer, eventually taking it above 60,000 feet. Each test will help us learn and move faster toward our goal.’
You can see the Aquila fact sheet here.