A giant solar-powered drone, which Facebook hopes will one day beam internet to unconnected parts of the world, has successfully completed a test flight for the first time.
The Aquila drone was in the air for 1 hour 45 minutes before landing safely back at base: a major milestone given that the previous test flight ended with a crash landing.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg hopes that the drone will eventually be able to provide internet access to around 4 billion unconnected people around the world, many of whom live in remote areas that current internet technology cannot reach without major infrastructure investment.
The drone has been designed to stay in the air for 90 days at a time, providing broadband coverage in a 60-mile radius on the ground.
The drone has a wingspan of 42 metres, making it bigger than a Boeing 737, but it only weighs as much as a grand piano: 450kg.
At the proposed cruising height of 60,000 feet, flying at 128 km an hour, the drone will use about as much power as three hair dryers.
The eventual aim is to have a fleet of Aquilas communicating with one another via laser. But before that can happen, engineers say there are a number of tweaks to be made.
Among the challenges identified is getting enough power during daylight hours for the drone to operate 24 hours a day, especially during long winter nights.
Engineers also say that due to the ratio of Aquila’s size to weight, they are pushing the boundaries of aeronautical engineering, with no real precedents to rely on.
Alongside this, in order to make the technology viable there is the obvious challenge of making sure Aquila is cheaper, better and more reliable than any other network alternative.