Facebook edge ahead in worldwide broadband competition

by Richard Zaher / Aug 02, 2016


The race for global internet took a new turn this week as Facebook’s solar airplane, Aquila, offering broadband to remote areas of the world successfully completed its first test flight.

The aircraft was commissioned by Facebook and is called Aquila, a ground-breaking aircraft designed by a dream team of experts from various fields with CVs listing NASA, Boeing and the British Royal Air Force among other prestigious aviation areas. This project utilized that same efficiency and high-tech vision, but for a very different purpose.

Bringing broadband internet to remote regions has long been the aim of several major competitors, and not just from the usual suspects. Last year Coca-Cola, Airbus and the Virgin Group all through their weight behind the OneWeb project which aimed to bring broadband to third-world and remote countries via 648 micro-satellites. The satellites were to be launched into space within four years and would negate the need for large, costly and time-consuming land masts.

Elon Musk, the charismatic entrepreneur who’s aiming to make life on Mars a reality, is another key contender targeting worldwide internet. His adventurous company SpaceX received $1 billion from Google and Fidelity Investments, with one of the company’s main ambitions being to beat Facebook and Virgin to bring broadband to the masses.

But it would appear that the main candidates are now Facebook after the news that Aquila’s test flight was a complete success. The social networking giant recently valued at an incredible $350 billion announced the good news on their own website:


Aquila Test Flight

“After two years of engineering, we’re proud to announce a successful first test flight of Aquila, the solar airplane we built to bring internet access to people living in remote locations,” read the post. “When complete, Aquila will beam connectivity down from an altitude of more than 60,000 feet using laser communications and millimeter-wave systems. Aquila is designed to be hyper-efficient so it can fly for up to three months at a time, which would break the world record for solar-powered unmanned flight.”

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has never been afraid to think big. Born to parents in dentistry and psychiatry, the New Yorker was raised in a small village 21 miles from Manhattan. He showed huge academic potential from an early age and eventually secured a place at arguably the most prestigious university in the US, Harvard University.

It was here that Zuckerberg would go on to create Facebook, along with the help of several classmates at the time. Despite numerous opportunities to sell the company at multiple stages, Zuckerberg instead continued to watch the company grow, incorporating innovative techniques to stay ahead of the competition. His hackathons, for instance, saw employees tasked with creating an incredible project from start to finish in just one night but surrounded by music, food, and beer in an atmosphere that blended social interaction with intense workloads.

With the company now worth $350 billion, and with talk of it one day reaching a mind-boggling $1 trillion, it’s no surprise to see that Zuckerberg is as hungry as ever to remain innovative and ahead of the competition. That’s where Aquila comes into play.

Aquila’s test flight took place in Yuma, Arizona and successfully proved that the aircraft was capable of flying using only solar power. A wide wingspan that exceeds the length of the Boeing 737’s is covered in panels to ensure a constant stream of energy for the airplane. In spite of this considerable width, the aircraft weighs in at less than 500kg making it ideal for longer flights.

As stated by Zuckerberg, the aircraft can fly at an impressive 60,000ft and ultimately the goal is to have a network of aircraft all working with one another to cover large regions. Each aircraft will be able to project its internet coverage to a 60-mile radius and can maintain this for approximately three months. The high altitudes that the unmanned aircraft can fly at will mean there is little to no interference with commercial aircraft. What’s more, the solar-powered fleet will have no need for physical masts and as such, once created, will command a relatively low level of maintenance and human interaction.

But how reliable will the internet connection be from Zuckerberg’s visionary Aquila? According to Facebook, the laser used on the latest version of the aircraft can deliver data approximately ten times faster than existing technology. It is also capable of extremely accurate aim and can hone in on something the size of a penny from over ten miles away.

There will be plenty of use for Aquila. Despite widespread availability in many Western countries, more than 60% of the world’s population is currently without internet, often due to unavailability or unviable costs. Aquila aims to combat both of these issues at once, and it’s in a strong position to do so after flying for more than three times the originally intended time on its inaugural flight.

“Our original mission was to fly Aquila for 30 minutes, but things went so well that we decided to keep the plane up for 96 minutes,” said Zuckerberg. “It’s all part of our mission to connect the world and help more of the 4 billion people who are not online access all the opportunities of the internet.”


The Technology Behind Aquila. Source: Facebook.

Being the driving force behind bringing the internet to every home on Earth would do his company no harm, and might make that $1 trillion estimation much more of a reality. But regardless of the reasoning behind it, this remarkable achievement will prove just how much of an impact unmanned drones are set to have on society in the coming years. The only question is, who will be the ones to crack it first?

OneWeb, SpaceX – it’s over to you.

Pictures Courtesy of Facebook.

About Richard Zaher

Richard Zaher Richard Zaher is the founder and CEO of Paramount Business Jets. He is a pilot and the President of Air Charter Association of North America (ACANA). Richard is a graduate of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) with a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Studies. A seasoned international jet charter expert, entrepreneur, humanitarian, and the recipient of the Embry Riddle Eagle Excellence Award at the 2012 National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) convention. He is also an active member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) as well as several safety and air charter organizations.

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