The long-awaited first flight of Facebook’s solar-powered, internet-beaming drone went off without a hitch just a few weeks ago. Yesterday, the social media giant finally shared video footage of Aquila’s first flight, which took place on June 28. The flight lasted 96 minutes and came just one month after the plane’s initial test flights, as Facebook scrambles to make up some of the lost time the project has suffered due to multiple delays. CEO Mark Zuckerberg attended the flight, watching from the ground as the solar-powered airplane took off before dawn near Yuma, Arizona.
Facebook (and more specifically the Facebook Connectivity Lab) has been teasing the tech world for nearly two years with its plans for a solar-powered unmanned airplane (or simply, a drone) that could someday beam internet service. The vision is for a slew of these high-tech drones to fly simultaneously, all beaming down internet signal to create a worldwide network of free access. Although Facebook’s engineers have been hard at work on the drone technology, the company isn’t taking on the data service portion of the dream just yet. The California-based company will instead look to a partner to provide the network service, just as soon as they find a suitable match.
Zuckerberg posted about the plane’s technology on Facebook this morning, revealing his optimism for the project’s future. “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,” he wrote. “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.”
Aquila’s wingspan is wider than that of a Boeing 737, but the plane is ultra lightweight for its size, coming in under 1,000 lbs. Each plane is designed to circle in a 60-mile radius, consuming only 5,000 watts of electricity (the equivalent of running three hair dryers). The solar-powered drones will fly at 60,000 feet, which is above the clouds, ensuring that they can harvest enough solar energy to power the plane through the day and night. In fact, the end goal is to fly the drones for months at a time, so continuous access to the sun’s rays is key. Test flights were originally planned for summer 2015, but the technology wasn’t ready, so the timeline was delayed.
More information about the project’s technical challenges and next steps is available in this post by Facebook’s engineering team.