Facebook has announced the first successful test flight of a high-altitude solar plane to bring internet access to remote parts of the world.
The Aquila drone has the wingspan of an airliner but weighs less than a car. When cruising it consumes just 5,000 watts – the same as three hairdryers or a powerful microwave.
The first flight took place on 28 June in Arizona. Facebook said the test went better than expected and that Aquila’s 96-minute flight was three times longer than planned.
Aquila was developed in Bridgwater, Somerset, by Ascenta, a designer of solar-powered drones that Facebook bought in March 2014. The drone, designed to fly non-stop for three months, will use lasers to beam down internet access to remote areas without online capacity.
Facebook installed a team of engineers at Bridgwater from fields of expertise including aerospace, avionics and software and who had previously worked at organisations such as Nasa, Boeing and the Royal Air Force.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, revealed in March 2015 that the company had been testing drones in the skies over the UK.
Facebook intends Aquila to be part of a fleet of planes that will provide the internet to 4 billion people in sub-Saharan Africa and other remote regions that do not have access currently.
Jay Parikh, Facebook’s head of engineering and infrastructure, said in a blog: “We’re encouraged by this first successful flight, but we have a lot of work ahead of us … In our next tests, we will fly Aquila faster, higher and longer, eventually taking it above 60,000 feet.”