On June 28th, the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona witnessed the maiden flight of the Facebook’s full-scale drone, Aquila. Facebook plans to incorporate a fleet of these wing-shaped drones to provide internet connectivity in remote areas.
Aquila's First Flight
Aquila is a solar-powered drone with the 42-meter wingspan of a Boeing 737 passenger jet. This massive carbon-fiber drone is only a third the weight of a typical family car. In its planned final stages, the aircraft will be able to stay aloft for 90 days at a time and operate between 18km and 27km in the air.
The current version of Aquila can neither fly at its considerable target altitude nor stay aloft for 90 days. It may take a few years to achieve these goals. However, Aquila’s first flight is still a milestone in Facebook’s path to beam internet down to the 10% of the population who does not have it.
The goal of the recent test flight was to take off safely and have a stable flight for at least 30 minutes. Aquila successfully flew for 90 minutes over Arizona, far longer than the time that the team had originally anticipated. However, the aircraft faced some problems when landing and this led to damage. The drone team will iron out the kinks in the Aquila’s control system before flying it at high altitudes in future.
The goal is to form a network with a fleet of these drones flying between 18km to 27km above the ground. The network of drones will use lasers to communicate with base stations down here on Earth and will provide internet access to the remote areas. This target altitude was chosen based on the fact that it has no commercial airplane traffic and is not affected by weather conditions.
Facebook is the first company to fly drones at such high altitudes. Because of this, they've assigned a team to discuss their flight guidelines with policymakers.
Aquila is not able to rise to its cruising altitude on its own—it needs other means, such as helium balloons, to be launched. After reaching its target altitude, it will circle a 3-killometer radius to stay aloft. When the solar panels of Aquila receive sunlight in the day, the aircraft can go up to its highest altitude. However, the drone needs to return to its lowest altitude at night to reduce power consumption.
The Challenges Aquila Faces
Aquila faces many challenges before it will be able to be used in the airborne network.
For one thing, they'll need to work on the drone's ability to stay aloft. Considering that, so far, the longest flight with a solar-powered aircraft is two weeks, Facebook's drone team needs to put in a lot of effort to achieve a three-month long flight.
Beyond that, adding solar cells to the aircraft will increase its weight. As its weight goes up, more energy needs to be consumed to keep the drone in the air. The added cells also must not degrade Aquila’s aerodynamics, which is another issue in and of itself.
Finally, the batteries Aquila uses to stay flying during the night make it significantly heavier.
Aquila is one of the Facebook’s first priorities and we can expect that, very soon, all of these problems will be addressed one way or another.
Aquila is an outcome of the Facebook’s Connectivity Lab which is also designing satellites and lasers to provide internet access to rural areas. Two dozen people, including Andy Cox, a specialist in the solar-powered drones, and Hamid Hemmati, a scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, have worked hard to design and build the first full-sized version of Aquila in 14 months.
Previous Endeavors to Expand Internet Connectivity
In 2013, Google tested a similar project, Project Loon. This project tries to use balloons to form a network high in the sky and targets altitudes similar to those of the Aquila project. However, Project Loon needs relatively accurate models of wind speed and direction in order to work correctly.
The competition between Google and Facebook to introduce the first working airborne network, using either the drones or the balloons, will be a spectacular event in near future.
Internet.org was announced in 2013 and was aimed to spread internet connectivity via basic smartphones in underserved areas. The goal of the project was to benefit those people in the world who have access to the internet but cannot afford to pay for it. On the other hand, the Aquila program's internet-delivery drones are part of Zuckerberg’s ambitions to facilitate internet connectivity in the poorest parts of the world.
Facebook also built a high-speed network, Terragraph, which is suitable for outdoor data transmission due to the use of millimeter-wave technology. Terragraph can achieve a data transmission ten times faster than the conventional Wi-Fi-based networks.
ARIES is another project of the Facebook’s connectivity Lab which is a massive array of directional antennas. ARIES can be placed in a well-wired city and provide wireless data transmission to the rural areas dozens of miles away.
A satellite above sub-Saharan Africa was another shocking breakthrough recently announced by Facebook.
In fact, Facebook is introducing new forms of networks. Toward this end, the company needs to develop lasers, drones, and AI-based software. Most of the achievements these studies will achieve will be considered open source to further enhance worldwide internet connectivity.
The Importance of Spreading Internet Connectivity
Why is Facebook so fixated on spreading internet access?
Studies from Deloitte (PDF), McKinsey & Co., and others have asserted that internet connectivity is vital to economic development, education, and health.
Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook, refers to these studies often when talking about Aquila. He cites the finding that, for every ten people getting connected to the internet, one job gets created.
The heart of the Aquila program is the goal of improving people's lives in rural areas. If successful, it could dramatically increase job opportunities, improve education, and better the health and welfare of rural communities.
Therefore, considering the fact that almost 1.6 billion people are not connected to the internet, getting these people on the internet can be one the most important things that can be done to improve their lives. Spreading internet connectivity can somewhat make up for the lack of direct investment in education, health, and more.
The question is: In what way would the increased internet connectivity be beneficial to Facebook?
Zuckerberg's ambitious 10-year plan for the future of Facebook involves a lot of services based on artificial intelligence and virtual reality. According to this plan, Facebook, the world’s largest social network, is aiming to become a leader in computer science. This would mandate having a more reliable internet connection the world-over and explains the various projects that the Facebook’s Connectivity Lab is exploring.
The Backlash Against Facebook's Motivations
There are suspicions about Facebook’s ulterior motives. Facebook has shown in past projects that it considers its own services as among the most "basic" ones of the internet. For example, for the project Internet.org, Facebook provided free access to some "limited services" of the web. It included Facebook in these limited services.
As a result, Internet.org faced strong backlash from groups claiming that such projects are mainly a way to make the company more powerful. Many in India have resisted the Internet.org project, stating their belief that it violates net neutrality by treating Facebook preferentially. The idea that Facebook’s ultimate goal is to increase its number of users isn't out of the question; such an increase would be significantly advantageous to the company’s advertising business, which is projected to be worth over $22 billion this year.
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web, also strongly criticized Internet.org and advised people to decline this service. He believes that offering Facebook, Wikipedia, weather, job listings, and government info for free and calling these services "the internet", as the Internet.org does, is a step backward and these services cannot be branded the internet. Berners-Lee adds that such a service is not actually free or in the public domain and we can find other ways of reducing connectivity costs for developing communities.
These controversies likely made Facebook more careful about its latest project, Aquila. Facebook plans to develop the new technologies required for expanding internet access and give the outcome of these projects as an open-source resource to local internet service providers. Leaving local telcos responsible for the services, Facebook may be able to escape the suspicions associated with these campaigns.
Zuckerberg seems earnest about the philanthropic goals of these projects, but the massive return they will give Facebook’s shareholders leads many to see his efforts as an attempt to colonize the digital world.