MOUNTAINVIEW, Calif. — During July of this year, Facebook carried out the first full-scale test flight of Aquila, a high-altitude, solar-powered, unmanned aircraft designed to provide Internet access to remote regions. We’ve covered the topic previously in our Digital Radio Update.
The physical characteristics of Aquila are impressive: It has a wingspan about the same as that of a Boeing 737, but only weighs 900 pounds fully laden.
Facebook’s plan is that Aquila will circle a region up to 60 miles in diameter at a height of more than 60,000 feet, using laser communications and millimeter wave systems to provide connectivity to the ground.
But not all in the industry are convinced that this plan is completely workable. Facebook wants to have a fleet of about 10,000 Aquila aircraft flying to areas where and when they are needed. In order to do so, it will have to work closely with operators, governments and other partners to implement the program.
The Aquila fleet will fly at that height in order to avoid commercial aircraft, according to Facebook, but "military planes — especially spy planes — fly higher, and they don't have traffic controllers either," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, in an article in TechNewsWorld.
With a fleet of 10,000 planes, "a one-in-a-thousand chance of failure would give us 10 failures, on average," Enderle estimated. "I'm still trying to figure out how they will convince governments these aren't really spy planes or flying ballistic deathtraps."
Command and control for 10,000 craft would be a problem, said Michael Jude, a program manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan, also quoted in TechNewsWorld. "To put this in perspective, 10,000 drones are more than all the militaries of the world are currently flying," he said.
Both India and Egypt have already banned Free Basic, the low-cost Facebook service that Aquila airplanes will enable.