Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) has taken to the skies with a solar plane that it hopes can bring internet access to remote locations around the world. The first full-scale test flight occurred on June 28, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a video of the flight (found here) on Friday.
This could be a step forward for both solar-powered flight and internet access from high altitude. And Facebook is further along in testing the concept than most competitors.
Solar flight is now a real thing
Facebook isn't the first company to attempt solar flight. The Solar Impulse 2 airplane just completed the first solar flight around the world. The single-passenger plane was built to demonstrate the power of the sun and the potential solar-powered aircraft have.
Facebook's plane isn't built to carry a passenger, saving important weight in its 24/7 flight and potentially allowing the plane to fly for months at a time. The current design has a wingspan longer than a Boeing 737 and only uses the power of about three blow-dryers.
The Aquila drone has only done slow, low-altitude test flights, but it's on the way to demonstrating long-duration, high-altitude flight powered by solar energy. It stayed in the air for 96 minutes in this June 28 test flight.
Internet from on high
The goal for Facebook is to bring internet to remote locations that aren't currently wired. Think of remote island communities or areas of Africa and India that have never been connected to the internet. Jay Parikh, global head of engineering and infrastructure for Facebook, wrote in a blog post that when complete, "Aquila will 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. Aquila is designed to be hyper efficient, so it can fly for up to three months at a time." The record for unmanned, solar-powered flight stands at two weeks, so there's a lot of work to be done.
High-altitude flight isn't a new concept. In fact, most major aircraft and drone companies have been working on it for some time. Airbus has a test aircraft called Zephyr that runs on solar power, Boeing (NYSE:BA) has the liquid-nitrogen-fueled Phantom Eye that could fly for days, and AeroVironment (NASDAQ:AVAV) has a hydrogen-powered Global Observer concept. These are all intended to be used as pseudo-satellites or for government purposes like surveillance, but given the right technology, they could provide internet access as well.
This could upend communications
Today, expanding telecommunications to new territories, whether it's in the U.S. or abroad, requires expensive infrastructure. But a pseudo-satellite flying 60,000 feet above the ground can bring internet to an area 60 miles in diameter. Unlike traditional infrastructure, these planes can be deployed on demand.
If Facebook, or any of the other high-altitude aircraft builders, can create an airplane capable of flying indefinitely, it could also bring communications infrastructure to parts of the world that are still years away from being wired to a traditional telecommunications source.
Pushing the envelope in flight and connectivity
It'll probably be a few years before solar-powered, high-altitude flight becomes common, but Facebook putting its weight behind the technology is a good sign for the industry. With big companies pushing the technology of long-endurance flight, these drones will bring new technology to a wide variety of industries. Investors should be excited for what they come up with next.