Certain regions of the Earth are presently out of the ambit of the Internet. Nearly 10% of the population or more than 4 billion people live so far from fiber optic cables or cell towers that they are unable to reach the Internet. Facebook is set to end this isolation by having a drone fly overhead while beaming Internet down to such areas.
At their Connectivity Lab, which is a division of Facebook’s Internet.org, researchers confirm the completion of such a drone. This is the first step Facebook is taking before it builds a larger fleet. They have not yet flown the craft, but Facebook has already been testing their concept over the UK with versions one-tenth the size. They intend to conduct flight tests of the full-size drone before the end of this year.
Facebook will be using the solar-powered V-shaped carbon fiber craft, named Aquila or Eagle (in Latin), for beaming down wireless Internet connectivity to expand Internet access. About a year ago, Facebook launched Internet.org. Although their intentions were to provide Internet access to those in the world who do not have a reliable connection, the project has received a lot of dissension for not adhering to net neutrality – especially in India.
Facebook has designed and built Aquila in 14 months. The drone will fly in the air for 90 days without touchdown. To launch it up into the air initially, technicians will be attaching Helium balloons to the plane.
With a wingspan of 46 yards or 42 meters, Aquila has to move constantly to stay aloft. Therefore, it will circle a three-km or two-mile radius. During the day, when the craft can generate energy from the sun, it will float up to 90-thousand feet or 30 Km. However, the craft drifts down to 60-thousand feet or 20 Km at night for conserving energy. While not planning to sell the drones at present, Facebook intends to use them for expanding Internet access.
The research team has been able to increase the data capacity of the lasers involved in the project. This is one of the biggest breakthroughs as the new system can communicate at speeds of 10 GB per second using a ground-based laser to talk to the dome on the underbelly of the plane. This is about 10 times faster than the current capabilities allow.
Facebook is not alone in their endeavors to bring wireless Internet to rural regions. Rivals Google also have a program up their sleeve – Project Loon. They plan to put up high-altitude Helium balloons with transmitters attached. Although Google has not launched their project yet, they claim it is in a more advanced stage compared to where Aquila is at present.
Therefore, very soon, you may see a huge 900 lb. drone nearly the size of a Boeing 737, slowly circling 11 miles up in the sky. Currently, Facebook’s mission is mired in controversy. All over the world, critics are questioning several practices of Facebook’s Internet.org on security, fairness and privacy grounds. There is a danger countries may spy on and repress their citizens. In addition, first-time users of the Internet might be limited to what Facebook provides them as news and information.