For remote offline communities, Facebook’s autonomous test plane moved another step closer to providing internet to Earth’s least connected places.

As reported in Smart Cities World, the social media giant recently ran full scale tests of its Aquila unmanned airplane. Facebook intends to use the solar-powered plane to provide regional web connectivity to billions of people living in Earth’s most remote communities.

Previously Facebook had argued that projects like Aquila are necessary to connect isolated communities where the economics of terrestrial web infrastructure are too expensive.

The plane, which was developed by Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, faces significant technical hurdles before it is complete. As well, its chief engineer says the project needs to develop key partnerships between governments and other partners to enable it succeed in various locations around the globe.

“This will require significant advancements in science and engineering to achieve,” said Facebook’s global chief of engineering and infrastructure Jay Parikh. “It will also require us to work closely with operators, governments and other partners to deploy these aircraft in the regions where they’ll be most effective.”

The solar-powered drone has a wingspan of a normal airliner and flies at a high altitude of 60,000. Its hyper-efficient design will eventually allow it to fly for three continuous months.

Facebook says the plane still has a long way to go before it can stay aloft for months at a time, though the latest test exceeded expectations.

“It was so successful that we ended up flying Aquila for more than 90 minutes — three times longer than originally planned,” Parikh said.

Facebook has now confirmed Aquila’s design

The drone uses millimeter wave systems and laser communications to beam down connectivity from above the clouds. Once fully operational, the drone will be able to circle a zone 60 miles in diameter, providing continuous internet to people living below.

Aquila is part of Connectivity Lab’s mission to connect people in far-flung locations through the use of drones, satellites and other communications systems.

In Aquila’s first functional low-level flight over Arizona, Facebook verified the plane’s overall aircraft design and operational models.

“In our next tests, we will fly Aquila faster, higher and longer, eventually taking it above 60,000 feet. Each test will help us learn and move faster toward our goal,” said Parikh.

In order for the robot plane to achieve three months of continuous solar-powered flight, its systems have been optimized to only consume 5,000 watts at cruising speed. This is equal to the electricity usage of three hair dryers.

Donal Power