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WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Only half the world is connected, Facebook’s connecting the other half.

 

Facebook has achieved the first successful test flight of the Aquila drone, marking another notable milestone in the firm’s efforts to deliver internet access to 4 billion people worldwide who are still off the grid in regions too remote and too expensive to be served by fibre or WiFi.

 

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Aquila is a battery-powered, auto-piloted behemoth with a wingspan of 43 metres, about the same as a Boeing 737, yet it weighs just 400kg and the prototype drone flew at a few thousand feet for 96 minutes over the deserts of Yuma, Arizona.

 

Aquila’s First Flight
 

The plan is that the skies will eventually be dotted with multiple connected Aquilas, each flying at around 18,000m (60,000ft) and able to stay airborne for months at a time using solar power to charge the batteries. The drones will beam the internet wirelessly to previously unconnected parts of the planet.

Engineers from the company’s Connectivity Lab listed the ongoing challenges to making the project a success, which include optimising the aerodynamics to fly at altitudes where the air is very thin, integrating solar power (the prototype’s batteries are not charged in flight) and reducing the cost of production.

“Over the course of the next several months we’ll continue to study the data we obtained from this initial flight,” they said.

“As we conduct more test flights, we will add more aircraft to the test fleet, fly to higher altitudes, and explore the high-speed regime, where the airframe’s flexibility becomes limiting, and the low-speed loiter regime, where the aircraft will eventually provide connectivity to the ground.

 

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“We will add instrumentation to the aircraft to help us learn about the structural dynamics, stability and control derivatives, and the all-important aerodynamic efficiency. We’ll also experiment with different aircraft form factors, sizes and weights as we learn more.”

Aquila is part of Facebook’s Internet.org initiative to expand the reach of the internet, although not all have taken to the plans.

Some have warned that if Facebook and a few other large companies deem which services are important to new web citizens, they are in effect creating a walled garden internet, going against the purpose of web access for all.

 

About author

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin, described as “The Adviser behind the Advisers” and a “Young Kurzweil,” is the founder and CEO of the 311 Institute, a global futures and deep futures consultancy working between the dates of 2020 to 2070, and is an award winning futurist, and author of “Codex of the Future.” Regularly featured in the global media, including AP, BBC, CNBC, Discovery, RT, and Viacom, Matthew’s ability to identify, track, and explain the impacts of hundreds of revolutionary emerging technologies on global culture, industry and society, is unparalleled. Recognised for the past six years as one of the world’s foremost futurists, innovation and strategy experts Matthew is an international speaker who helps governments, investors, multi-nationals and regulators around the world envision, build and lead an inclusive, sustainable future. A rare talent Matthew’s recent work includes mentoring Lunar XPrize teams, re-envisioning global education and training with the G20, and helping the world’s largest organisations envision and ideate the future of their products and services, industries, and countries. Matthew's clients include three Prime Ministers and several governments, including the G7, Accenture, Bain & Co, BCG, BOA, Blackrock, Bentley, Credit Suisse, Dell EMC, Dentons, Deloitte, Du Pont, E&Y, GEMS, HPE, Huawei, JPMorgan Chase, KPMG, McKinsey, PWC, Qualcomm, SAP, Samsung, Sopra Steria, UBS, and many more.

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