Giving wings to internet

  • Aquila during its test flight. Pic courtesy: Facebook
  • Mark Zuckerberg and crew watch the launch of Aquila

On June 28, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his team watched with fingers crossed, a gigantic drone flew at low altitude across the skies of Yuma, Arizona. This was the successful test flight of Aquila, a solar-powered internet drone.

What makes this short flight over the Arizona desert so important for Facebook is that it is the first step towards Zuckerberg's dream of expanding the internet to all corners of the world. Through a fleet of such drones, which will stay airborne for months, the social media giant plans to beam internet to people in remote parts of the world.

“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,” Zuckerberg noted in a Facebook post on Thursday, announcing Aquila's successful flight.

Facebook also released a video of the inaugural launch of Aquila. While its majestic flight is a sight to behold, the concept of an internet-beaming drone might just go over the top of our heads. Here's taking a closer look at Zuckerberg's pet project and what's in it for us.

Decoding Aquila
Aquila, literally meaning eagle, has the wingspan of a Boeing 737 passenger jet. Wondering how this huge structure can manage to stay airborne? Here is how: Aquila weighs just about a third of an electric car, thanks to its unique design and carbon fibre frame! Powered by the sun during the day, Aquila runs on battery power at night. During its test flight, Aquila remained in the air for 96 minutes. The original mission, was to fly only for 30 minutes. The flight, however, went so well that the team decided to extend it.

Though the test flight is a positive sign, Zuckerberg's team still has a long way to go. The greatest challenge is to equip Aquila with adequate number of solar panels and batteries to let it stay airborne through winters and dark days, for up to three months at a time. And this should not be at the cost of its weight.

How will it work?
Aquila is designed to fly at altitudes between 60,000 and 90,000 feet, above commercial air traffic and the weather. Aquila will carry a communication payload that will use lasers to transfer data 10 times faster than existing systems. Once airborne, these drones could beam internet service to a base station on the ground, which could then send the signal on to phones and PCs. Facebook's team claims to have tested a laser that can deliver data to a target the size of a dime, more than 10 miles away.

Though mostly self-sufficient, Aquila relies on a ground crew of about a dozen engineers, pilots and technicians who direct and monitor the aircraft. They control the aircraft through software, which allows them to determine heading, altitude and airspeed.

Who else is in the race?
With this successful test flight, Zuckerberg takes on Google's Project Loon that aims to broadcast internet signals with a network of high-flying helium balloons. The project involves fitting transmitters to balloons, which will fly at similar altitudes to Facebook's drones. Project Loon balloons will travel in the stratosphere latching onto layers of wind as directed by software algorithms. It was first tested in New Zealand in 2013.

Microsoft's White Space project is yet another project aimed at boosting internet connectivity across the world. Microsoft's idea is to utilise unused spaces or gaps in the spectrum. The spectrum is divided into frequency bands. TV networks usually leave gaps between channels to enable buffering. It is these gaps that can be used to deliver broadband internet.

What's in it for India?
Aquila is part of Facebook's larger initiative——which met with wide criticism from social media activists and advocates of net neutrality when it was introduced in India last year. The project was launched in tie-up with major telecoms to boost internet connectivity in the country. However, it received much flak as it favoured only Facebook's own services. It was eventually banned by India's telecom regulatory authority.

Google's Project Loon has already stared testing in India, and may partner with BSNL for sharing spectrum. As for White Space, it is already testing in India. It will test its pilot project in Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh.

With its competitors already ahead in the mission to bring last-mile internet connectivity to India, Aquila has some catching up to do. And also find a way around the complexities it faced in attempts to bring low cost internet to India last time.

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