Around 40% of the world is currently connected to the internet and Facebook are looking to connect the rest of the world with affordable and accessible internet.
Connecting people poetically in remote areas using traditional methods is a very costly business. One in five people globally lives in extreme poverty, existing on $1.25 per day or less. While progress has been made in connecting more than 90% of the world’s population to 2G networks, getting to 100 percent using conventional approaches is unlikely to happen in the near term.
Facebook is looking at solving these problems and are developing a range of new technologies, including high-altitude aircraft, satellites, free space optics, and terrestrial solutions to help accelerate the process of bringing connectivity to the unserved and underserved.
The company has announce that its first full-scale model of Aquila — the high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft designed by our aerospace team in the U.K. — is complete and ready for flight testing.
With Aquila, the team has designed new aircraft architecture that can support staying in the air for months at a time. Aquila is solar powered, and when launched, it will create a 50-km communications radius for up to 90 days, beaming a signal down to the people in that area. This signal will be received by small towers and dishes that will then convert it into a Wi-Fi or LTE network that people can connect to with their cellphones and smartphones.
To make all of that possible, the team had to make the plane really big and really light. Aquila has the wingspan of a Boeing 737 airplane but weighs a third as much as an electric car. The monocoque wing is made from carbon fibre that is stronger than steel for the same mass of material.
The aircraft will fly between 60,000 and 90,000 feet during the day — above commercial air traffic and above the weather. The air at that altitude is thin, about 5% that of sea level, so a high aspect ratio wing and an under-cambered airfoil is utilised in the design to optimise its lift-to-drag ratio. During the day, the aircraft will fly at 90,000 feet to maximise its ability to charge its solar cells. At night, it will glide down to 60,000 feet, taking advantage of gravitational potential energy to consume less power.
Test flights for the full-scale model should begin later this year, following the sub-scale flight tests from earlier in the year in the U.K.