Facebook’s Internet.org plane, designed to bring wi-fi connectivity to remote areas, is ready for flight testing. The unmanned plane, named Aquila, has the wingspan of a 737 but the profile of a stealth fighter, with a carbon-fiber frame. It was designed by the Connectivity Lab’s aerospace team in the United Kingdom. When finalized, it will be able to circle on its own for 90 days and beam internet down from an altitude of 60,000 to 90,000 feet – well above the altitudes at which commercial airlines normally fly.
“We knew from the initial calculations it needed to be a very lightweight but very stiff design,” said Andy Cox, the engineering lead at the Facebook aviation team, in a video.
The plans for the plane kept getting bigger, said Cox, with four or five different iterations of escalating size. “I did have quite a nervous day … when we decided to make it 42 meters. I decided to go over and check the building was big enough.”
To keep it light his team used cured 88 gram T700 carbon fiber. It’s stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum, and, Cox said, “quite lifty.”
In its effort to bring more internet connectivity to the world (and thereby creating more users) Facebook is also working on developing a laser that can deliver data at 10s of GB per second. According to their press release, this is 10 times faster than the current state-of-the-art internet service. It can target a location the size of a dime from more than 10 miles away.
The laser will be used to transmit radio signals between constellations of the Aquila planes over long distances. The setup also requires a ground station, which will transmit a radio signal to the “mother” aircraft, which sends it to the rest of the constellation.
So far, the design for the laser has been completed and tested in the lab.
“We have to challenge the means by which internet is delivered itself,” said Yael Maguire, director of engineering at Facebook’s Connectivity Lab.
These planes could be viable sources of internet connectivity in areas where infrastructure such as fiber-optic cable, microwave repeaters, and cell towers might be difficult or impossible to deploy.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense