Facebook Aquila maiden flight

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Momentous events like the first flight of Aquila are the sorts that linger in the memory for a long time. For people like me, I can tell you what I was doing when I first heard the news. It was Thursday night, the 21st of July. I vividly remembered it was a Thursday because I was looking forward to another weekend. But first, I decided to check my news feed one last time before going to bed.

Facebook Aquila maiden flight
Facebook drone Aquila

I wished I hadn’t. Though the headline from The Verge was a bit ambiguous, I knew the story was about Aquila. It had to be. I rushed in to click it open and greedily read how the test flight went.

But by the end of the detailed article, I was a bit depressed. Sleeping was difficult because I felt Mark Zuckerberg sold me a dud project; in the sense that he raised my hope about the project very high only to bring it crashing down on a day we all should have been celebrating Aquila. More on that later.

Project Aquila is the most ambitious project by Facebook to deliver cheap high speed internet to remote regions of the world. Other popular projects include the Free Basics that is already in use in several third world countries including Nigeria. Though it had some serious setbacks in India and Egypt.

Facebook Aquila maiden flight
Waiting for Aquila to take off

For Mark Zuckerberg, Aquila is like watching a concept come to life slowly. It all started in 2014 when he wrote a paper about the possibility of delivering high speed internet through the use of solar-powered drones.

The drones have to be solar powered to reduce cost. Part of the system would include the use of sophisticated lasers to send the signals from the drones to base stations on the ground.

The impressive project faced a lot of challenges every step of the way. Mostly how to keep such a huge unmanned plane in the skies for a long periods.

The engineers working on the project even toyed with the idea of launching the drones using hot air balloons. We can see shades of Google’s Loon Project there. However, that did not work out.

Facebook Aquila maiden flight
Inspecting Aquila before take off

Even plans to test-flight a far smaller model of Aquila did not work out due to tropical storms. Other plans to launch test flights were canceled on two different occasions last year. It was looking as if Aquila would never get off the ground.

But on the the morning of 21st July, the drone finally took off on its maiden test flight and was able to stay up for about 90 minutes. The initial plan was to keep it cruising for 30 minutes. So that was a sweet victory for the engineers.

And for Mark Zuckerberg too. After all, it was his idea. And he spent a lot of money putting together the team in charge of delivering a drone that could remain in flight for 3 months non-stop.

When is Aquila going to be Fully Deployed

This is where it got depressing for me. Facebook is not saying when the drones would start littering our skies. And to be honest, they don’t know. There are so many things that need to be put in place before the talk shifts to full deployment. One of the challenges is to get various governments around the world to grant the drones flight permissions. That is easier said than done though.

But the real downer for me is the fact that Facebook is not really going to built it’s own cellular network with the drones. The plan is to develop the technology and hand it over to governments, Telecoms companies or NGOs interested in having them.

Again, Facebook is not going to run the finished drones.

In effect, from my point of view, Facebook is not going to deliver cheap high speed internet to poor communities. Why do I say so? Simple. Governments in poor countries have no interest in delivering these sorts of things to their citizens. They’d rather acquire the technology and make it another thing to separate the rich from the poor.

Facebook Aquila maiden flight
Aquila in Flight

What about Telecoms companies? For them, making as much money as possible is the name of the game. Making internet cheap and affordable to poor communities is not in their interest. An Aquila drone would just be used as a means of improving  profits.

As for NGOs, how many of them have the financial muscle to to deploy enough drones to serve poor communities. Remember, for the Aquila project to achieve its objectives, the drones have to be many.

Sorry, I don’t think any NGO can manage that.

So for people like us who had being looking forward to the day Project Aquila would deliver high-speed internet, courtesy of Facebook, the dreamboat got dashed about 2 weeks ago.

All I have left now is Google’s Loon project. I just hope they don’t decide to do it like Facebook by handing over the finished project to governments, Telecoms or NGOs. My fingers are crossed.


image credit: smartdrones.fr; theverge.com

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