When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg ecstatically announced the successful flight of Aquila, a solar-powered plane, it became clear that his dream of connecting a billion people to internet is certainly taking shape. Aquila passed its very first functional check, a low-altitude flight over Yuma, Arizona with flying colours.
Let’s take a closer look at Aquila, its design, the success and the challenges that the team is currently working upon.
What is Aquila?
It is a solar-powered airplane that Facebook aims to enable Internet connectivity for millions of people residing in the hardest-to-reach places. Commenting on the capabilities of Aquila, Jay Parikh, Global Head of Engineering and Infrastructure wrote, “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. Aquila is designed to be hyper efficient, so it can fly for up to three months at a time. The aircraft has the wingspan of an airliner, but at cruising speed it will consume only 5,000 watts — the same amount as three hair dryers, or a high-end microwave.”
Aquila’s wingspan is little wider than a Boeing 737, around 37 meters, but weighs only around 500 kgs as the engineering team has used carbon fiber composite to make the plane. The cruising speed of Aquila has been kept pretty low – less than 80 mph, so as to consume as less energy as possible. That’s why the flying object travels too slow. In terms of power consumption, when in flying mode, it consumes just 5000 watts or in Facebook’s analogy – power of two hair dryers.
Aquila is mostly self controlled, however, around a dozen engineers monitor and maintain the plane with help of software defined network or SDN. The flying route is controlled by GPS and the takeoff and landing are automatic.
The Facebook Aquila will use laser beams to transmit data at a speed faster than currently available speed and can cover an of 60 miles in diameter.
The solar powered plane flew in air for a good 96 minutes, three times more than the planned duration of 30 minutes, and left the team members overjoyed. This gave team members enough time to check performance models and components, including aerodynamics, batteries, control systems, and crew training.
Aquila’s success has testified that there would come a time when Internet would reach every corner of the world via drones. The unmanned plane has few design and engineering shortcomings, which are currently being worked upon at the Facebook’s Connectivity Lab.
For instance, the team wants to fly this plane at an altitude of 60,000 feet or above, which requires that the weight and power consumption of this airplane must be further reduced.
“To reach our goal of being able to fly over a remote region and deliver connectivity for up to three months at time, we will need to break the world record for solar-powered unmanned flight, which currently stands at two weeks. This will require significant advancements in science and engineering to achieve. It will also require us to work closely with operators, governments and other partners to deploy these aircraft in the regions where they’ll be most effective,” adds Parikh.