Facebook's Internet-Beaming Airplane Just Had its First Flight

Jul 21, 2016

Facebook's solar-powered drone has taken its first flight, the company announced Thursday. The aircraft, called Aquila, is part of the Menlo Park, Calif. firm's plans to bring Internet connectivity to underserved areas.

Aquila flew for more than 90 minutes during its first test, which the company says was three times longer than planned. Facebook has been flying a one-fifth scale version of the aircraft for months, but this is the first time it has tested the full-size flyer.

Facebook says Aquila will be able to fly for up to three months at a time, beaming Internet signals to the ground from as high as 60,000 feet. Before Facebook can achieve that feat, it says it will have to break the world record for the longest unmanned solar-powered flight, which currently stands at two weeks.

"We're encouraged by this first successful flight, but we have a lot of work ahead of us," Jay Parikh, Facebook's global head of engineering and infrastructure, wrote in a blog post announcing the achievement.

Google parent company Alphabet has a similar program in the works called Project Loon, which aims to broadcast Internet signals with a network of high-flying balloons.

Aquila is part of the Facebook's larger mission to bring Internet access to underserved areas through an initiative called Internet.org. (Facebook often promotes its connectivity efforts through the lens of philanthropy, but it would also stand to benefit from having more potential users in the world.) Among Internet.org's other efforts is a plan that offers free Internet access to those using basic smartphones in countries like India and Egypt. That initiative, called Free Basics, has been criticized by those who believe it favors Facebook's own services over rival offerings.

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