Facebook's laser-powered internet drone preps for take off

10Gbit/s connectivity – now that's what I call inflight Wi-Fi

Facebook Aquilla photo Facebook

The prototype craft for Facebook’s laser internet-in-the-sky is close to take off. A solar-powered, carbon fiber flying V-shaped wing, that’ll pump out 10Gbit/s connectivity using a laser, will begin test flights “soon”, the firm said Thursday.

Facebook chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer said preparation for the inaugural flight of the first craft – called Aquila – are underway.

But, speaking to press on a brief trip to London at Facebook’s HQ, Schroepfer wouldn’t reveal the exact location of the flight. Schroepfer did however say Facebook is looking for partners to help Aquila “scale out.”

Translated, that means Facebook is looking for companies who could continue to refine, manufacturer and maintain a fleet of Aquilas.

Facebook built the flying laser drone in 14 months at a secret facility in Somerset, using a team of experts with track records in solar-powered flight, Schroepfer said. Again, he would not reveal the location of the facility or the individuals involved.

“We will be looking to work with partners in the long run to scale out,” Schroepfer told the assembled press.

Aquila was unveiled in July as Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to bring internet connectivity to places around the planet where the internet does not exist.

Facebook is already working with satellite providers as part of that plan – it announced a deal with Eurelsat to deploy internet to sub-Saharan Africa in October.

The idea for Aquila is for formations of craft flying very slowly and continuously for periods of up to three months, around a given areas passing network connections between them across a span of 11 miles. A fleet of Aquila’s would be tethered to a ground-based internet up link, flying at heights of 60-90,000 feet – far above the height of normal commercial airline flight paths.

The prototype is huge: a simple, swept-back wing with four engines it has a 43-meter span, just a bit bigger than a Boeing 737, but far, far lighter: between 800 to 900lbs versus 124,500lbs for the 737.

Charge for the solar cells is stored in Lithium Ion batteries.

The challenge, according to Schroepfer, has been to get a machine that can stay aloft for their allotted time. He reckoned the record of such unmanned flights is weeks, not months, at a time. ®


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