Yes, the tech giant has completed its first full-scale test flight of Aquila: a solar-powered Stealth Bomber-shaped drone that brings broadband Web access to remote regions of the world.
And that’s the point. With its virtually limitless resources, Facebook is on a mission to get every person on the planet connected, and, well, using Facebook.
The problem (or opportunity, depending on your perspective) is that 60% of the global population remains unconnected. That’s 4 billion potential Facebook users -- 1.6 billion of whom live in remote locations with no access to mobile broadband networks.
That’s where Aquila comes in.
“New technologies like Aquila have the potential to bring access, voice and opportunity to billions of people around the world, and do so faster and more cost-effectively than has ever been possible before,” Jay Parikh, global head of engineering and infrastructure at Facebook, notes in a new blog post.
To be clear, Facebook isn’t relying on drones alone to get the world online. As part of the Facebook Connectivity Lab, it's also testing satellites and other wireless communication systems to get the job done.
To call Aquila’s mission ambitious would be an understatement. But it might just be up to the talk. When complete, the drone should be able to circle a region up to 60 miles in diameter, beaming connectivity down from an altitude of more than 60,000 feet using laser communications and millimeter wave systems.
Designed to be super-efficient, Aquila should eventually be able to fly for up to three months at a time -- breaking the world record for solar-powered unmanned flight.
The next step is to push Aquila to the limits in what Parikh calls a “lengthy series of tests,” in the coming months and years.
“Failures are expected and sometimes even planned,” Parikh cautions. “We learn more when we push the plane to the brink."