Facebook's Internet Drone To Take On Google's Loon
Facebook has completed a successful test flight of a solar-powered drone that it hopes will help it extend internet connectivity to every corner of the planet. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook has announced the news through a post on his Facebook page. He mentioned that the drone named Aquila features a lightweight construction and has been designed to fly in high attitudes.
The social networking giant intends to prepare a fleet of the new drones having a minimum flight duration of three months in a go.
The Aquilas should be able to maintain a steady altitude of 18,290 meters or 60,000 feet for this entire period of time. All drones in the fleet will be inter-connected to provide seamless internet connectivity to the desired area.
Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc has also invested in delivering internet access to under-served areas through Project Loon, which aims to use a network of high-altitude balloons to made the internet available to remote parts of the world.
Facebook’s engineering director and head of its Connectivity Lab, Yael Maguire, said in an interview that the company initially hoped Aquila would fly for 30 minutes. ”We’re thrilled about what happened with our first flight,” Maguire said. “There are still a lot of technical challenges that need to be addressed for us to achieve the whole mission.” He hoped the system might be brought into service “in the near future.”
Among the biggest challenges faced the Aquila team is getting enough sunlight to continually recharge the drone’s batteries so it can stay aloft at night. That will be a challenge during winter months—while the drone’s motors will only require about 5,000 watts of power to stay aloft at high altitude, it will have to fully recharge batteries with as little as 10 hours a day of sunlight in the expected range for Aquila’s operation. And those batteries will have to be as light as possible to allow Aquila to perform its mission. “Given current and projected battery performance,” Cox and Gomez noted, “that means batteries will account for roughly half the mass of the airplane. We’re pushing the edge of high energy-density batteries while exploring the best designs to ensure we have enough resilience in the system,” as reported by Arstechnica.
There are additional challenges that have less to do with getting into the air and more to do with Aquila being allowed to get there in the first place. In addition to making Aquila financially sustainable—by reducing how much it costs to operate and maintain—Facebook will have to convince network operators and other partners to help them get the broadband links they need. They will also need to convince governments to allow them to fly over their territory.
Given the friction Facebook has faced with its free broadband efforts so far—such as India’s ban on Facebook’s Free Basics on network neutrality grounds—the company and its Internet.org effort will have to navigate carefully, according to experts.
Zuckerberg laid out the company’s biggest challenges in flying a fleet of Aquilas, including making the plane lighter so it can fly for longer periods, getting it to fly at 60,000 feet and creating communications networks that allow it to rapidly transfer data and accurately beam down lasers to provide internet connections.
Maguire said Aquila will go through several more test flights and hopes it will soon break the world record for the longest solar-powered unmanned aircraft flight, which currently stands at two weeks. Facebook, which has more than 1.6 billion users, has invested billions of dollars in getting more people online, both through an initiative called internet.org - which offers a pared-down version of the internet to poor areas - and by building drones.
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