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Facebook’s UK-based aerospace unit is ready to test its Aquila high-altitude, solar-powered, long-endurance drone aircraft designed to provide internet connectivity to remote regions.
The project will boost Internet.org, which was set up in 2013 by Facebook and other tech industry partners with the aim of connecting as many parts of the world to the internet as possible.
Internet.org aims to benefit the estimated more than four billion people who are not yet online, and has already connected more than a billion people by working with mobile operators.
However, to reach the 10% of the world’s population that live in remote locations where technologies used everywhere else are not feasible, Facebook’s Connectivity Lab is working to accelerate the development of new technologies for internet service providers to use.
The completion of the first full-sized version of the Aquila, which has the wingspan of a Boeing 737, is an important milestone for the Connectivity Lab team, said Facebook.
Despite its wingspan, the drone has a mass of less than 500kg due to its carbon-fibre frame and is designed to remain airborne for 90 days at a time, providing internet connectivity from an altitude of 60,000 to 90,000 feet.
Each drone will fly in a circle with a radius of about 1.8 miles, which is expected to enable internet coverage for an area with a radius of 30 miles.
Thanks to a breakthrough by Facebook’s Connectivity Lab’s communications team in the US, the Aquila drone could use laser technology to deliver data at tens of gigabits per second.
According to Facebook, this speed is roughly ten times faster than the previous state-of-the-art technology in the industry.
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“When finished, our laser communications system can be used to connect our aircraft with each other and with the ground, making it possible to create a stratospheric network that can extend to even the remotest regions of the world,” said Facebook vice-president of global engineering and infrastructure Jay Parikh.
“We still have a long way to go in this work, but we are excited by our early progress. And much like we’ve done with the Open Compute Project, we plan to engage with the broader community and share what we’ve learned, so we can all move faster in the development of these technologies,” he said.
Although developed in the UK with the help of expertise acquired through Facebook’s purchase of UK aerospace startup Ascenta in 2014 for £12.5m, the full-size version of Aquila is to be tested in the US, reports the Seattle Times.
Facebook founder and chief Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged the firm will benefit in the long run if more people gain internet access, but claims the project is based on the conviction that internet service can bring economic and social benefits to developing nations.
In parallel to work by the Facebook-led Internet.org, Google is experimenting with high-altitude balloons as well as drones and satellites, while Microsoft has funded a project that will transmit internet signals over unused TV spectrum.