A few minutes before dawn on the 28th of June last year, Mark Zuckerberg landed at an aviation testing facility to witness the test flight of a solar-powered drone known as Project Aquila.
Aquila is not an ordinary drone. It represents one of the most ambitious projects ever to be handled by Mr. Zuckerberg and Facebook. The test launch of Project Aquila has been many months coming. At a point, skeptics thought it would never happen as the project suffered many setbacks and delays.
However, Mark Zuckerberg had betted a lot on the project including his reputation. Failure was not an option. That was why traveling all the way to Yuma, in Arizona, so early in the morning was something he had to do.
What is Project Aquila?
Project Aquila was announced as a concept just over two years ago at Facebook’s 2015 developer’s conference known as F8. The mission statement of the project was simple enough: beam down high-speed internet signals to the world’s poorest communities using a huge drone.
This was a surprising move for an ultra-software company like Facebook. Making hardwares was simply not Facebook’s forte. But since they used the prestigious F8 to announce it, they must be committed to seeing it through
The technical specifications and technology involved are breathtaking. In the first place, Project Aquila is to be powered by special solar cells embedded in the wings of the drone.
Secondly, the unmanned craft is designed to stay at an altitude of about 90,000 feet for at least three months at a time. It is from that height that it is supposed to beam internet signals to people below.
Thirdly, the drone is made from special carbon fiber material to make it half as light as a family SUV. This is quite a feat considering the wingspan of the drone is about the same size as a Boeing 747 passenger plane.
There is a reason the wings are so long; the solar cells extend along the length of the wings. That is enough cells to generate enough energy to keep the unmanned plane at that altitude for up to 3 months.
The energy generated would, of course, be used to power the onboard sophisticated electronic gadgets.
And for the first time, lasers would be used to push internet signals to people below.
Basically, that is what Aquila is all about. The whole project is co-ordinated by Facebook’s Internet.org Connectivity Labs. This is the unit where all Facebook’s initiatives on free internet access to the world’s poorest are been handled. One of such initiative from Internet.org is the Free Basics service which is already operational in some third world countries.
Obstacles to cheap Internet using Aquila
One of the biggest obstacles to the dream of cheap Internet with a giant drone is scaling through the regulatory process of each country the drone would fly through. The challenges of getting approval from governments in different countries would even be more difficult than the challenges of getting Aquila to function optimally.
Governments in most developing countries are in no hurry to give so much access to citizens. Chalking it up under national security issues. They would rather control what their people can access through the internet at any given time.
Deployment of completed Project Aquila
Facebook does not intend to use the drones to build a worldwide cellular network. The plan is to license the technology to interested parties. Or in the best case scenario, give it out to governments, telecommunication companies, and non-profit organizations.
This immediately throws up issues that are very apparent to any casual observer of the dynamics of information access.
Issues with governments – clearly, only government in third world countries would be remotely interested in taking up the option of acquiring Aquila for their citizens. This is because authorities in advanced countries are focused on the regulatory side of business. They tend to leave private firms to run businesses the way it would enhance their profits.
The issue here is simple. Governments in third world countries won’t have enough funds to run the project or are too paranoid to give cheap internet access to the poor. And in the very poor banana republics, corruption and inefficiency would kill the project very quickly.
Telecommunications company – there is very little to say about tech firms giving out freebies to customers. The rule of thumb is to make as much money as possible in the shortest possible time for themselves.
So the idea of cheap high-speed internet to the masses doesn’t appeal to the business interest of these companies. Unless it is going to be a monopoly, none of them would go down this route with any seriousness.
Non-profits organizations – non-profit organizations are generally altruistic in their operations. However, they are always limited by a paucity of funding.
A project like Aquila is huge, requiring equally huge resources to keep it running. At best, a large non-profit organization can maintain just a couple of drones covering a limited area. Which defeats the aim of the dream as only a few people would have access to high-speed internet.
Clear and immediate problem
All the above problems are in the future; the immediate problem for Project Aquila is how to make the whole enterprise cheaper.
The test flight last year did not involve any solar cells or the required onboard gadgets. It was a practically stripped down drone.
The immediate challenge is to make sure the special solar panels, batteries and the onboard gadgets plus other necessary circuitry would not make the drones unduly heavy.
A very heavy drone would need bigger solar panels and batteries and would cost a lot more to keep it up for over 3 months continuously. This issue was amplified by Andrew Cox, one of the lead researchers working on the project:
“We need to develop more efficient on-board power and communication systems; ensure the aircraft are resilient to structural damage to reduce maintenance costs and able to stay aloft for long periods of time to keep fleet numbers low; and minimize the amount of human supervision associated with their operation.
Ultimately, Project Aquila might just end up being a vanity project couched as a ‘help-the-poor’ initiative. On the other hand, the very rich who can afford it would simply pay a lot of money to Facebook to acquire the technology. Then use it as a personal cellular network. It is not beyond the realm of possible for people who have too much money than sense.