Facebook’s team has developed a system whose ground-based laser can transmit information to a dome on the underside of the plane at rates 1,000 times faster than has previously been possible. During the day, it will cruise in circles at 90,000 feet, soaking up solar power. Neither company plans to operate their own sky-high Internet services; they plan on handing these aerials to existing providers such as Vodafone.
After Facebook gets Aquila off the ground it has to work up to flying it in the stratosphere for about three months at a time for it to be a practical way to deliver Internet connectivity, says Parikh. It will hover between 60,000 feet and 90,000 feet (20 km to 30 km) above the altitude of the commercial airplanes, so that it is not affected by problematic weather. Its function is not to drop retail items from the clouds like Amazon’s drones, but to provide Internet access to the hundreds of millions of people who don’t have it in under-served parts of the world. Its eventual fleet of drones will be part of the company’s plan to bring Internet service to billions of people around the world.
Aquila has officially taken flight, where the aircraft itself will have a wingspan of 140 feet and it has one major task – to ensure that even the most remote of regions will be able to have access to the Internet. Though current regulations require one pilot on the ground for each drone, Facebook hopes to design the Aquila so it can fly without a dedicated pilot.
Mike Cassidy, the leader of Google’s balloon project, has argued that balloons will be cheaper and more practical than drones for some time, due to the technical challenges of inventing and operating them. Facebook and others are also exploring satellites that provide Internet signals from higher altitudes.
He added that these technologies are useful because “10 per cent of the world’s population lives in remote locations with no Internet infrastructure”, and it may be costly to deploy conventional systems like cable or cellular communication in these areas.
Facebook will start testing its huge drones later this year to see if it can really fly for the purported 90 days. At that point, an Aquila would find its horizontal plane, and then its tether to the balloon will be cut, sending the drone into its flight pattern.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged that Facebook’s business will benefit in the long run if more people gain Internet access, but he says the effort is not driven by profit-seeking.
Facebook has discussed a plane in the past, and Re/code reported in November that it was building out a team to build drones. “We’re not going to operate this stuff ourselves”, he said. “We’re focused on finding ways to drive the industry to move faster”.