Facebook Tests Massive Solar-Powered Drone To Beam Internet To Sub-Saharan Africa

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Written by Dana Sanchez

Facebook has successfully tested its solar-powered Aquila drone, part of a fleet that will provide Internet access to parts of sub-Saharan Africa and beyond if all goes according to plan.

The Aquila drone is massive, foreboding and terrifying, Quartz reported. It has the wingspan of a Boeing 737 jet.

It also weighs less than a car, according to The Guardian, consuming only 5,000 watts — equivalent to three hairdryers or a powerful microwave — when cruising.

The drone has a 140-foot wingspan, weighs less than 1,000 pounds, and uses laser technology that represents a breakthrough, Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg said, according to Daily Mail.

Facebook's Project Aquila drone. Photo: Facebook/Quartz
Facebook’s Project Aquila drone. Photo: Facebook/Quartz

‘We’ve successfully tested a new laser that can transmit data at 10 gigabits per second,” Zuckerberg said. “That’s 10 times faster than any previous system, and it can accurately connect with a point the size of a dime from more than 10 miles away.”

The first test flight took place June 28 at low altitude in Arizona, Facebook announced Thursday. The goal is to have a fleet of drones like these flying at high altitude — 60,000 to 90,000 feet — receiving Internet data from a base station via proprietary laser connections, and beaming that data down to customers, according to Quartz.

Facebook wants the drones to be able to stay in the air, powered by just the sun, for months at a time.

In South Africa, about 14 million people use Facebook every month —  about 52 percent of Internet users in the country. A lot more needs to be done to connect the rest of Africa, said Nunu Ntshingila, Facebook head of Africa,  HTXT reported.

“There are 800 million people that yet need to be connect to the Internet, so it is important that we connect those people,” Ntshingila said. “We need to fast-forward the rate of connection, because if people can connect to the Internet, they will be able to connect to a business. This is important for businesses, but also important for the economy of a country.”

Facebook has had a remarkable year. It’s the world’s largest social network — 1.65 billion people use it every month. Its advertising business has grown faster than expected and rivals struggle to match it. Yet what Zuckerberg talks about most these days is basic Internet connectivity, The Verge reported.

In August 2013, Facebook introduced Internet.org, a controversial effort to bring online services to underserved areas including . Since then, Facebook’s connectivity efforts have expanded. It released open-source blueprints for telecommunications infrastructure in an effort to drive down data costs. It’s testing Terragraph, which delivers data 10 times faster than existing Wi-Fi networks. And it continues to expand its Free Basics program despite setbacks, such as India banning the program over net neutrality issues.

If Facebook succeeds at its goal of keeping Aquila drones in the air and delivering data for 90-day periods, the company believes it will have a powerful new tool in bringing Internet access to the entire world, The Verge reported.

Zuckerberg inspects the drone’s engine prior to flight. Photo: Facebook/Quartz
Zuckerberg inspects the drone’s engine prior to flight. Photo: Facebook/Quartz

Aquila was developed in Bridgwater, Somerset, U.K. The drone will use lasers to beam down Internet access to remote areas without online capacity.

Facebook has engineers at Bridgwater with experience in aerospace, avionics and software who worked for organisations such as Nasa, Boeing and the Royal Air Force, The Guardian reported.

Zuckerberg said in March 2015 that the company had been testing drones in the skies over the U.K.

The Aquila test lasted 90 minutes—three times longer than the team originally planned, according to Quartz. The drone team will work on its control systems in future tests before they attempt to fly at high altitudes. The team tested a small-scale model of the drone for months, working out kinks, before testing the real one, which is made of carbon fiber.

Whatever else Facebook does going forward, it starts with a connected world, Zuckerberg told The Verge. “If we make progress on this, it will be one of the great things that our generation can do to improve lives around the world.”

The internet-beaming super drones are part of Zuckerberg’s plan to “coat the world in Internet,” Quartz reported. The company has been criticized for potentially being able to profit from the Internet access it aims to facilitate with Internet.org, an initiative to bring Internet to the poorest part of the world.

In May 2016, Nigeria became the 40th country in the world, and the 22nd in Africa, to join Facebook’s Free Basics, Huffington Post reported.