Facebook’s CTO, Mike Schroepfer, told attendees at the Web Summit in Dublin on Tuesday that Facebook is about to begin real-world testing of its new system to deliver broadband internet globally via solar-powered planes that stay aloft in space for three months at a time and communicate with lasers.
Facebook began talking about its “Aquila” planes — for delivering internet coverage to remote or poor areas in the developing world — earlier this year.
On Tuesday, Schroepfer gave us more details on how far along Facebook is in its development of this aeroplane fleet, and the engineering challenges ahead of it.
Each Aquila plane will have the wing of a Boeing 737 and fly up to 90,000 feet for three months at a time.
Each plane is incredibly light, and its engines will be powered by solar panels.
Schroepfer said “a full-scale version of this aircraft is now fully constructed and we’ll be undergoing flight tests very, very soon.”
The planes will receive broadband signals from the nearest city with internet service, beamed up via laser. Each Aquila plane will then be able to transmit and share the signals to any other plane in the network.
The engineering challenge is that each plane’s lasers are aimed over 11 miles, the equivalent of laser pointer trying to hit a 10 euro cent coin. “And oh, by the way, that coin is moving while you’re trying to hit it,” Schroepfer said.
Not only that but the lasers must be aimed through an environment affected by heat, dust, and temperature differences, which all bend light.
Nonetheless, Facebook expects to be able to deliver tens of gigabytes, 10 times better than “existing solutions,” Schroepfer said.
Currently about 10% of the world’s population live in locations where it wouldn’t be cost-effective to build internet infrastructure on the ground like cell towers, microwave repeaters, or fibre-optic cables. Comparatively, flying laser-equipped planes would be much more economically feasible.
“When you bring a road to a rural area, it really improves people’s lives,” says Facebook’s Hamid Hemmati, director of laser engineering. “Similarly, when you bring the information highway to a place, it will really improve their livelihood.”
Ultimately, the company wants to push “the boundaries of what might be possible, to go into new frontiers for how we connect.”
Additional information in this post was written by Jullian D’onfro.
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