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When a few months ago, on the 25th of march to be precise, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg unveiled the design of Aguila, an unmanned aviation vehicle ( UAV), on his Facebook page, it sent ripples of excitement in the tech world as this was a culmination of a journey that started almost exactly a year ago when Facebook bought the modest Ascenta, a company based in the UK. The acquisition of Ascenta made it possible to hire some of the engineers and programmers responsible for designing the early models of Aquila, a solar powered UAV that is now the industry standard for setting a world record for unmanned flight. In 2010, the Zephyr flew for 336 hours and 26 minutes at an altitude of over 70,000 feet which is yet to be bettered by any solar powered UAV five years later.

Mark Zukerberg
Mark Zukerberg

The next day, the chief technology officer ( CTO) of Facebook, Mike Schroepfer showed the world a small prototype of the Aquila in flight at a Facebook developer’s conference in San Francisco. The Aquila is a huge drone. With a wingspan of over 120 feet, it is longer than the commercial Boeing 737, but amazingly weighs a hundred times less than the 737. This feat was achieved by the use of a revolutionary carbon fiber. According to Facebook, the drone actually weighs the same as a small car and can stay in flight non-stop for up to 90 days at an altitude of between 60,000 – 90,000 feet. This is way above the altitude of commercial flights and also above the weather, which should ensure minimal to zero disruption from commercial flights and bad weather respectively.

So why so much excitement over a very large drone? Cheap Internet. That was the raison d’etre when Zuckerberg bought Ascenta last year. Not just cheap internet though, but very fast Internet, and Aquila is the drone to rescue over 4 billion people in the remote areas of the world who have little or no Internet access. But it is not as if Facebook will build its own terrestrial infrastructure, what Facebook intend to do is to partner with local internet service providers(ISPs) by sending the signals from the drone to the towers and dishes owned by the ISPs who would then convert the signal to WiFi and LTE network that people can connect to. At the initial stage, each drone can cover an area of up to 50km. So in essence Facebook will help networks in remote areas deploy faster and cheaper Internet services to the world’s disenfranchised.

the aquila protype on test flight
the aquila protype on test flight

The drone is just one of the aspects of the whole project. To beam signals and Internet connectivity to a drone at such a high altitude, Facebook engineers in Woodland Hills, California, developed a laser that can deliver data at ten times the speed of existing technology to a small target more 15km away. These speeds, more than 10 gigabits per second, are of course routinely achievable and surpassed by fibre optics, but according to Yael Maguire, the director of connectivity at Facebook, this is the first time such a feat was achieved through space and air.

Now that stratospheric unmanned UAVs would soon be part of our daily existence, the challenge for regulators is now to design a framework for industry players. Setting rigid but dynamic rules must be paramount in the face of other companies’ desire to launch their own UAV’s. Google and Amazon readily come to mind as some of the early ‘deployers’ of these technology. A future of the earth’s stratosphere being taken over by these drones is now  our reality.

So while regulators figure out the rules, Facebook’s Aquila will test-launch fully in the US very soon using a helium balloon. This is to ensure it gets above commercial airspace and into the stratosphere quicker.

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