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Facebook launches Aquila: the drone manufactured in the UK to bring Internet to 7billion people

Posted by: Megan Speet
09/08/2016

In the new era of digital connectivity, there are many technologies designed to bring the Internet to people living even in the remotest places on the Earth.
The first main solution is the satellite, which is good for delivering internet access across broad geographical areas. However, these are only effective in areas with low population density.
The second is the cellular tower, which excels at connecting dense urban populations. But building enough cellular towers to cover the entire Earth is considered too expensive and impractical.
So who knew that Mark Zuckerberg could dream up another solution? Zuckerberg’s idea is a drone aiming to connect 7 billion people on Earth. But this is not just an ambitious dream anymore, because last month it became a reality.

Facebook’s Connectivity Lab launched “Aquila”, the first solar-powered drone that will be able to fly without landing for three months at a time, and uses a laser to beam data to a base station on the ground.

The project started two years ago and few people know that the first Aquila prototype was constructed in a warehouse near Bridgewater, Somerset. It is indeed British firm, Ascenta, who manufactured the first drone, sent for testing in Arizona by the social network.
The drone has a tremendous 141 feet wingspan, consider that a Boeing 737 has just 113 feet. Built with carbon fibre, Facebook has engineered Aquila to be as light as possible, weighing in at 900 pounds (half the weight of a Smart Car) to permit ultra-long flights. "It needs to be light. Every kilo of extra weight means we need more power to fly it," Ascenta's founder Andy Cox told the BBC.

For Facebook, Aquila is more than proof of a concept. “Bringing the Internet to people all over the world, regardless of their income or where they live, will lift millions of people out of poverty - Zuckerberg says - improving education and health globally along the way. But it will also enable the next generation of Facebook’s services in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and more. This next era of tech will require higher bandwidth and more reliable connections than we have today, and drones can help deliver both. The road to a VR version of Facebook begins where Aquila leaves the runway.”

SO WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF DRONES?

In his paper “Connecting the World from the Sky”, Zuckerberg explains that high-altitude drones could serve a wide audience of people who live in medium-sized cities or on the outskirts of urban areas. Drones fly closer to the ground than satellites, meaning their signals are stronger and more useful to larger populations. Further, they fly above regulated airspace which makes them easier to deploy.
Of course, Zuckerberg is not alone in his mission to get people online. Google's Project Loon involves building a ring of balloons to fly around the globe on stratospheric winds to provide Internet access to the same remote places that Facebook aims to serve.

Obviously these kinds of initiatives are not without controversy. Facebook’s CEO seems to have a genuine desire to bring people connectivity that could transform their lives. But you cannot help feeling that he will also be hoping that Facebook's drones will be flying above sub-Saharan Africa before Google's balloons.

 

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