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Facebook’s Solar-Powered Aquila Drone Finally Takes Flight

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In an effort to bring Internet connectivity to remote parts of the world, social media giant Facebook announced Thursday that it successfully completed the first flight of its aircraft —Aquila, its unmanned solar-powered drone that aims to beam broadband coverage on the ground.

Aquila Drone

The solar-powered aircraft was manufactured at a warehouse in Bridgwater, Somerset, in England by U.K.-based Ascenta, a drone designer that specializes in solar-powered drones. The social media giant acquired Ascenta in March 2014 and its owner Andy Cox is now the engineer behind Project Aquila.

The aircraft is expected to use the latest laser-beam technology to provide fast internet access for people in a 60-mile radius as it circles the area above. The signal it releases will be received by the antennas of small towers and dishes on the ground, which will convert the signal into Wi-Fi or 4G networks that people can use their mobile devices in remote areas.

According to Mark Zuckerberg’s post, the drone’s wingspan is wider than a Boeing 737, but since the plane is made of carbon fiber composite, it weighs less than 1,000 pounds to keep it airborne for a longer time. The drone uses the solar energy from the day to keep going, so it needs to conserve energy to stay airborne during the night. Currently, its power consumption stands at about 5,000 watts, for power at cruising altitude, and Facebook’s Connectivity Lab is looking for ways to refine the present model by making it even lighter and more energy efficient.

The aircraft’s maiden flight took place on June 28 over Yuma, Arizona. The original plan was to fly the drone for 30 minutes but the test flight lasted 96 minutes, since things went so well, according to the company.

The company eventually wants to have a fleet of aircraft flying at 60,000ft (18,290 meters) for three months at a time and communicate with each other to deliver internet access. However, to achieve that, the social network has to first resolve a few shortcomings.

Zuckerberg in a statement said that the company will continue testing the aircraft over the next year to fly higher and be airborne for a longer period. He said that the company’s main aim is to connect the world and help more of the 4 billion people access the fast internet.

Earlier in March 2015, Zuckerberg had disclosed plans to test drones in the skies over the U.K., as part of the company’s campaign.

Facebook has already had to encounter a few challenges in its pursuit of making the internet available all across the world. Earlier, India rejected the Free Basics project, access to limited, free web access to citizens’ mobile phones over doubts that it would impact on net neutrality and give the company an undue amount of power.

The company will again have to compete against Google’s Project Loon in the race to develop airborne mobile connectivity platforms, which aims to deliver internet connectivity from a network of high-altitude balloons.

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