Connecting the World from the Sky
Nowadays approximately 40 percent of the population, or 1.6 billion people, don’t have Internet access. The primary reason is that it is cost-prohibitive. Viewing this as a problem, Facebook partnered with other technology companies in order to set up Internet.org, a movement aimed to make affordable basic Internet services available to everyone on Earth.
Connectivity improves people lives and lets them connect with other people and communities across the world. It allows people to find jobs, start businesses and allows access to education and information from anywhere in the world – giving you more access than any physical library ever could. A recent study showed that the Internet is the most important driver of economic growth in developing countries. Facebook wants to accelerate that growth by providing high-speed Internet connection to every corner of the globe.
The traditional model of connecting to the Internet required extensive and expensive infrastructures to connect people in remote or low-population-density areas. The Connectivity Lab at Facebook is developing a project that creates affordable Internet access using new and clean technologies. The latest innovation is the Aquila Unmanned Aircraft, a solar-powered plane capable of taking broadband Internet access all around the world using only solar energy.
The Aquila Unmanned Aircraft is a lightweight craft that has the wingspan of a Boeing 737 airplane but weighs less than a typical electric car and consumes around the same amount of energy as a hairdryer. It is made of a cured carbon and it is entirely covered with solar panels. The aircraft can stay airborne for 3 months at a time. When Aquila launches it will be capable of creating a 50-km communication radius for up to 90 days, beaming a signal down to the people in that area. Aquila will fly between 60,000 and 90,000 feet in elevation. During the day it will fly at 90,000 feet to collect enough energy from the sun to keep its propellers, communications payload, avionics, heaters and light systems running when it becomes dark and also to avoid commercial air traffic. At nights it will lower down to 60,000 feet to take advantage of gravitational energy, thus consuming less power.
The aircraft was designed in the United Kingdom by a team of engineers from various fields of expertise including aerospace, avionics and software. These engineers have previously worked at several prestigious organizations such as NASA, Boeing and the Royal Air Force.
Last week, after two years of research and development, the Aquila Unmanned Aircraft launched its first full-scale mission in Yuma, Arizona. The flight was scheduled to run 30 minutes but the aircraft wings worked so well that the flight was extended to a 96 minute run. The primary focus of the first flights was to allow the ground crew to check the aerodynamics, batteries, autopilot, motors, and control systems. In the upcoming tests, Aquila will fly faster, higher and longer. The crew will also experiment with a variety of different aircrafts with different sizes and weights to develop improved versions. When complete, the aircraft will be able to circle a region up to 60 miles in diameter at a height of more than 60,000 feet and will be capable of breaking the record for the longest unmanned flight. According to the 2014 ET report, India could be the first country where Facebook may start to provide connectivity to remote areas.
However, Google, one of Facebook’s biggest rivals has a similar project with plans to provide connectivity from the sky. It is called Project Loon and instead of using lasers it uses radio frequencies to transmit its data. Balloons are sent up 20-km into the stratosphere, traveling along easterly or westerly latitudes, transmitting signals to each other and extending Internet. Although currently, Loon balloons cover a larger circular area of 80km, Facebook claims that its Aquila Unmanned Aircraft can provide Internet with higher speed.
The ambitious project led by Facebook expects to reach a fleet of 10,000. The goal is to have all of the Aquila aircrafts communicating with each other through lasers and beaming Internet connection to rural and underdeveloped areas where it is needed to accelerate economic growth. In order to reach this goal, millions of dollars will have to be invested over the next few years. The plan also requires spending time and money negotiating with governments, regulatory authorities and commercial partners to obtain the necessary permits to start actively using the Aquila Unmanned Aircraft.
The Internet.org movement led by Facebook has partnered with companies such as Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia and Qualcoom and aims to create new clean technologies. All of these companies share the same vision of improving people’s lives, reducing poverty / inequality in the world and making the Internet available and affordable for everyone. Internet is a powerful and necessary tool that is expected to drive economic growth to underdeveloped countries in the near future.
To learn more watch this video of Aquila’s first flight: