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Aquila: Facebook's solar-powered plane and the technology behind it

July 22,2016 12:16

In a separate note on Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg, revealed details behind the technology for Aquila. In his post Zuckerberg says, “We gathered lots of data about our models and the aircraft structure — and after two years of development, it was ...



By: Tech Desk |

Updated: July 22, 2016 1:49 pm

Facebook’s Aquila plane on the runway. The solar-powered plane has completed its first successful test flight.
Aquila, Facebook’s solar-powered plane project–which aims to beam down internet via lasers from the skies– has successfully completed its first test flight in Yuma, Arizona.
A Facebook blogpost revealed the first flight was a low-altitude one, and the plane was up in the sky for 96 minutes, even though the original plan was to keep it flying for 30 minutes.  In a separate note on Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg, revealed details behind the technology for Aquila.
In his post Zuckerberg says, “We gathered lots of data about our models and the aircraft structure — and after two years of development, it was emotional to see Aquila actually get off the ground.”
The larger goal with Aquila is to have these planes fly at 60,000 feet, communicate with each other via lasers, and stay airborne for months at a time as they beam down Internet from the sky.  Facebook revealed this was the first time they flew a full scale version of Aquila; till now only one-fifth scale versions of the design were being tested.
Aquila is part of Facebook’s ambitious Internet.org project, which aims to bring internet connectivity across the world.
Mark Zuckerberg’s post also revealed some details about the Aquila planes. Here’s a quick look at the technology behind Aquila.
Weight: According to Zuckerberg’s post, “Aquila has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 737,” but the plane is made of carbon fiber composite. Aquila weighs less than 1,000 pounds (453 kgs) in order to keep it airborne for a longer time. The company is working to make these planes even lighter.
Power: Aquila is solar-powered and uses the sun’s energy from the day to keep going, so it needs to conserve energy to stay airborne during the night. Currently the plane is using 5,000W of power at cruising altitude, and Facebook’s Connectivity Lab is looking for ways to make it even more efficient.
Facebook Aquila in flight: Wing view.
Control: “Aquila still relies on a ground crew of about a dozen engineers, pilots and technicians who direct, maintain and monitor the aircraft,” says Zuckerberg’s blogpost. Takeoff and landing are automatic, but the engineers control the plane for altitude, airspeed, directions etc.
Speed: Zuckerberg says Aquila flies very slowly, as it needs to use minimum energy. The plane flies slightly faster (80 mph/128 kmph) at higher altitudes, where the air is thinner. The average speed of a smaller 4-seater plane (say Cessna 172) is around 230 kmph, which means Aquila is quite slow.
Altitude: Facebook is also working on how to get Aquila’s wings and propellers to function in higher (colder) altitudes and lower (warmer) altitudes, where the air is denser. “The company has to figure out how this will impact solar panel performance, battery size, latitude range and seasonal performance,” etc writes Zuckerberg.
Load: Nearly half of Aquila’s weight is from the high-energy batteries, and the company hopes a few more flights will help them understand the dynamics to reduce the weight. 
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg with some key members of the team at the test site. From left: Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO; Jay Parikh, global head of engineering and infrastructure; Kathryn Cook, technical program manager for Aquila; Yael Maguire, head of Connectivity Lab.
Communications: Facebook’s Aquila will carry a communications payload, which will use lasers to beam data. Zuckerberg says the beams will be “precise enough to hit a dime more than 11 miles away.”
Facebook is not the only company looking at beaming internet from the skies. Google’s Project Loon floats balloons which beam down internet in remote areas. Microsoft’s White Spaces Project will use unused frequencies allocated to broadcasting services to provide internet in particular regions of the country.
© The Indian Express Online Media Pvt Ltd

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