Aquila: Facebook’s Solar-Powered Internet Drone Explained

Facebook Solar-Powered Internet DroneFacebook’s Internet Drone Takes Flight

Crazy ideas are a dime a dozen in Silicon Valley, but occasionally, a harebrained scheme is made into reality. Take, for instance, the idea of a solar-powered Internet drone. It sounds like sci-fi, but Facebook Inc’s (NASDAQ:FB) has already had its maiden voyage.

Facebook’s Internet drone may sound a little strange to those just learning of it, so let’s back up for a second. What exactly is a solar-powered Internet drone, and why is Facebook building one?

The concept is fairly simple. Facebook recognizes that Internet access can help lower poverty. It levels the playing field in terms of education and information access, and gives people a chance to improve their lot in life at a relatively low cost. However, the poorest parts of the world don’t have Internet access. (Source: “Aquila’s First Flight: A Big Milestone Toward Connecting Billions of People,” Facebook Inc, July 21, 2016.)

None of the required infrastructure exists in these areas because those people don’t have the resources to pay for Internet access. Facebook understands this. That’s why the company came up with the plan to build giant solar-powered drones that can beam Internet down to those people.

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It’ll be free of charge and easy to use, with constant access. Google has a similar idea, where Wi-Fi–emitting balloons (yes, balloons) would float around the stratosphere, raining down Internet signals to the regions below. However, Facebook’s Internet drone seems slightly more viable.

Codenamed “Aquila,” the solar-powered Internet drone has a wingspan comparable to that of a Boeing “737” but a weight that’s more in line with a “Range Rover.” The low weight-to-size ratio makes it easy for the drone to stay afloat with minimal energy.

The plan is to have a single flight last three months. Facebook wants to have these drones populate the sky so that Internet access is a de facto right to everyone on Earth. It wouldn’t matter if you were in the middle of the Sahara Desert or Yosemite National Park—your Internet access would remain constant with Facebook’s Internet drone scheme.

A Successful Flight for Facebook’s Internet Drone

On its inaugural flight, Facebook’s Internet drone only managed to stay up for 96 minutes. The real challenge will be extending the flight time past two weeks, which is currently the record for an autonomous solar-powered flight.

Aquila’s maiden voyage took place in secret on June 28. Facebook released the results three weeks later.

This has kick-started a debate over how this program would actually work. For instance, how will governments react to autonomous solar-powered Internet drones flying in their airspace?

That’s just one of many considerations yet to be addressed. Then there’s the ethics of pushing users onto Facebook’s services through free Internet, which some claim is a violation of net neutrality. Although it’s unclear how net neutrality applies on a free service, I’m sure the debate will come up. Facebook’s already lost this battle in India.

Then there are the traditional Internet service providers. Once Facebook tries to expand its solar-powered Internet drones into North America, I can’t imagine that Verizon and AT&T will meekly hand over their lunches. They’re going to fight back.

The Bottom Line on Aquila

I’m also fairly certain that Facebook’s Internet drone plan will face competition from Alphabet, SpaceX, and maybe even Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Regardless of which company emerges as the frontrunner, this would be an extraordinary feat of humanitarianism. On a macro level, it helps countries build a technologically savvy workforce. On a human level, it helps children living in remote areas expand their horizons. For those children, free Internet access is a gateway to a different life, so this would level the playing field in a way that traditional philanthropy could never accomplish.