This morning Mark Zuckerberg posted a video and this comment:
On June 28th, we completed the first successful flight of Aquila — our solar-powered plane that will beam internet to remote parts of the world and eventually break the record for longest unmanned aircraft flight.
The flight took place before dawn in Yuma, Arizona. Our original mission was to fly Aquila for 30 minutes, but things went so well that we decided to keep the plane up for 96 minutes. We gathered lots of data about our models and the aircraft structure — and after two years of development, it was emotional to see Aquila actually get off the ground.
But as big as this milestone is, we still have a lot of work to do. 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.
Since Mark posted it on Facebook instead of YouTube (not really a surprise), I can’t embed the video. Click on the picture to watch. By the time you do more than 3 million people will have seen it.
If you want to know more, WIRED has the details.
Aquila is the flying drone Zuckerberg and company are designing to provide Internet access in remote parts of the world. It’s made of carbon fiber, and it tops the wingspan of a 737. As the truck reached full speed, the drone’s on-board autopilot computer clipped the straps that held the aircraft to the dolly, and Aquila rose into the sky. Guiding itself via that same computer, the drone flew for a good 96 minutes in the restricted airspace of the Yuma Proving Ground before landing in the desert on its styrofoam skids—Aquila’s first successful flight.
The plan is to power these drones with the sun, so they can stay aloft for months at a time. Aquila isn’t yet ready for that, but Facebook says the current design can operate on the power of about three hair dryers at altitude—and about a single hairdryer at sea level.
Currently, the drone runs on lithium ion batteries a lot like the one in your cell phone, and during its maiden flight, it reached an altitude of about 2,000 feet. But Facebook plans eventually to install solar panels that plug into some other as-yet-unspecified battery technology suitable to flights that climb much higher—about 60,000 to 90,000 feet—where temperatures are significantly lower.
And The Verge has an excellent behind the scenes take.
For Facebook, Aquila is more than a proof of concept. It’s a linchpin of the company’s plan to bring the internet to all 7 billion people on Earth, regardless of their income or where they live. Doing so will lift millions of people out of poverty, Zuckerberg says, improving education and health globally along the way. But it will also enable the next generation of Facebook’s services in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and more. This next era of tech will require higher bandwidth and more reliable connections than we have today, and drones can help deliver both. The road to a VR version of Facebook begins where Aquila leaves the runway.