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Facebook Aquila drone over Arizona
Facebook’s Aquila drone soars over Arizona’s Yuma Proving Ground. (Credit: Facebook)

After more than a year of development, Facebook unveiled a video showing the first flight of its full-scale Aquila drone, which is designed to stay aloft for months and potentially connect billions of users to the internet.

A one-fifth-scale version of the pilotless plane has been undergoing flight tests for months, but the full-scale Aquila – with a wingspan wider than that of a Boeing 737 jet – had its first outing over the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona on June 28. The details came out today in a posting by Jay Parikh, Facebook’s global head of engineering and infrastructure, and in an inside report from The Verge.

“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,” Parikh said.

Eventually, the Aquila is meant to fly for as long as three months at a time, powered day and night by solar cells and batteries. Facebook says it weighs only a third as much as an electric car, and is designed to use a mere 5,000 watts of power to stay in the air and relay data.

“When complete, Aquila will be able to circle a region up to 60 miles in diameter, beaming connectivity down from an altitude of more than 60,000 feet using laser communications and millimeter wave systems,” Parikh said.

Facebook Aquila pre-flight
Facebook’s Aquila drone is readied for flight. Among the members of the team are Kathryn Cook, technical program manager for Aquila; Yael Maguire, head of Connectivity Lab; Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO; and Jay Parikh, global head of engineering and infrastructure. (Credit: Facebook)

The drones would be part of a data network offering broadband internet access anywhere in the world. Parikh said the network could serve 4 billion people who don’t currently have such access, including an estimated 1.6 billion who live beyond the reach of mobile broadband networks.

Last month’s flight marked a big step in Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to widen the reach of online networks – and, not incidentally, his own company’s services – to virtually the entire planet.

“It was this incredibly emotional moment for everyone on the team who’s poured their lives into this for two years,” he told The Verge.

But it’s only one step: Many more test flights lie ahead – not only to push the envelope on flight endurance, but also to start putting the communications payload through its paces in the air.

Once the system is perfected, Facebook aims to manufacture thousands of the drones.

“It’s going to be cheap to build these, and I think the future is going to be thousands of solar-powered planes on the outskirts of places where people live. That’s going to make connectivity both much more available and cheaper. … It’s not something you necessarily expect Facebook to do, because we’re not an aerospace company. But I guess we’re becoming one,” Zuckerberg told The Verge.

However, he said Facebook wouldn’t build the actual network. Instead, the technology would be licensed or given away to telecom providers, governments and non-governmental organizations.

Zuckerberg isn’t the only one who envisions a global internet in the air: Google has several concepts in the works, including its balloon-based Project Loon and its drone-based Project SkyBender. Even the Boeing Co. is working on a concept for a solar-powered, high-altitude drone that could be used for communication. Meanwhile, SpaceXOneWeb and Boeing are working on multibillion-dollar satellite internet systems.

Who’ll win the race to hook up the world wirelessly? The answer to that question is most definitely up in the air.

Zuckerberg and Facebook Aquila flight
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other members of the team watch the Aquila flight. (Credit: Facebook)
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