Facebook’s ambitious plan to bring internet to the entire world with a fleet of broadband-beaming unmanned aerial vehicles has taken a step closer to fruition. The company’s vice president of engineering, Jay Parikh, told The Wall Street Journal that Facebook is planning “a real test flight” of its solar-powered internet drone this summer. A smaller version of the drone, one tenth the size of the planned product, was tested earlier this month.
The scheduled test flight would be the first time the full-sized internet drone — called Aquila — will take to the skies. Facebook says the vehicle will have the wingspan of a commercial passenger jet and the length of “six or seven [Toyota] Priuses,” but will only weigh as much as four car tires. The lightweight build should help the craft stay flying for weeks, months, or years at a time, using solar energy to keep itself aloft. Google, also in the process of developing its own internet-proliferation project, is using a different approach. The company’s Project Loon uses a swarm of balloons to disseminate broadband to unconnected portions of the world.
The technology to build the Aquila drone didn’t exist a year ago
Parikh said the solar and battery technology used to power the drone has only just been developed, telling The Wall Street Journal that the hardware available a year ago when the project was announced “wasn’t good enough for what we’re trying to do with this plane.” Facebook is also yet to secure deals with internet carriers to beam signal to the 1.1 to 2.8 billion people without internet today. When asked if Facebook would develop its own service to compete with global wireless carriers, Parikh said it would go against the company’s “core mission.”I think it would take a lot longer if we were going to do it all by ourselves,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “It would take a lot of money and I don’t think it’s sustainable long-term.”
Private companies such as Facebook are at the bleeding edge of drone research, but regulations aren’t keeping pace with the speed of development. Facebook executives have warned that the project is unlikely to be finalized any time soon, specifying that the firm needed to ensure the safety of the drones while also locking down relationships with carriers. Other companies, too, have suffered from the slow pace of drone regulation from aviation bodies such as the FAA — Amazon complained earlier this week that the delivery drone the federal body approved after several months is already obsolete.