At 2AM, in the dark morning hours of June 28th, Mark Zuckerberg woke up and got on a plane. He was traveling to an aviation testing facility in Yuma, AZ, where a small Facebook team had been working on a secret project. Their mission: to design, build, and launch a high-altitude solar-powered plane, in the hopes that one day a fleet of the aircraft would deliver internet access around the world.
Zuckerberg arrived at the Yuma Proving Ground before dawn. “A lot of the team was really nervous about me coming,” Zuckerberg said in an interview with The Verge. A core group of roughly two dozen people work on the drone, named Aquila (uh-KEY-luh), in locations from Southern California to the United Kingdom. For months, they had been working in rotations in Yuma, a small desert city in southwestern Arizona known primarily for its brutal summer temperatures.
On this day, Aquila would have its first functional test flight: the goal consisted of taking off safely, stabilizing in the air, and flying for at least 30 minutes before landing. “I just felt this is such an important milestone for the company, and for connecting the world, that I have to be there,” Zuckerberg says.
For Facebook, Aquila is more than a proof of concept. It’s a linchpin of the company’s plan to bring the internet to all 7 billion people on Earth, regardless of their income or where they live. Doing so will lift millions of people out of poverty, Zuckerberg says, improving education and health globally along the way. But it will also enable the next generation of Facebook’s services in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and more. This next era of tech will require higher bandwidth and more reliable connections than we have today, and drones can help deliver both. The road to a VR version of Facebook begins where Aquila leaves the runway.
In 2014, Zuckerberg wrote a paper analyzing various methods of internet delivery. High-altitude drones, he said, could serve a huge audience of people who live in medium-sized cities or on the outskirts of urban areas. They fly closer to the ground than satellites, meaning their signals are stronger and more useful to larger populations. And they fly above regulated airspace, making them easier to deploy.
If Facebook could build a drone that gathered most of its power from the sun, Zuckerberg reasoned, it could fly for 90 days. A laser communications system could deliver high-speed internet to base stations on the ground, connecting everyone within 50 kilometers. The planes would be easier to maneuver than, say, balloons — a method embraced by Google, which has embarked on its own global connectivity crusade with Project Loon. (Last year Google challenged Facebook more directly with Project Titan, a solar-powered internet delivery drone of its own.) If the drones could be built cheaply enough, they would one day dot the skies, and become a critical piece of the global internet infrastructure.
And so 26 months ago, Zuckerberg set an ambitious goal: to release a functional version of Aquila in just a couple years. He personally recruited experts from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and MIT’s Media Lab, among other places, to bring his vision to life.
Additional information on Facebook's efforts in building global connectivity and the Aquila project: