Facebook Wifi Drones: Expanding the reach of the Web

Amir Bashti
December 15, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2016

Project Aquila

Fig. 1: Latin for Eagle: Aquila resembles a graceful eagle gliding in the sky above surveying the Earth below and stretching out, shooting beams down below. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
"Part of our mission to connect the world and help more of the 4 billion people who are not online access all the opportunities of the internet." - Mark Zuckerberg

4 billion is a staggering figure, yet almost equally as staggering is that it comes as a suprising statistic considering the Internet's relative youth. This points to society's increasing dependence on this platform, that of which allows me to connect with you at this moment. Facebook's plan is to connect these people. Their plan, project Aquila, involves the deployment of a fleet of 1,000 solar powered aircraft, each beaming signals down to to the earth below through laser technology. [1,2]


The above mentioned laser technology transmits data to dime-sized receivers roughly 11 miles away on Earth's surface from an altitude of 60,000 feet, while moving. [1,2] To boot Aquila's wingspan covers roughly 100 ft from one end to the other, greater than that of a Boeing 737 commercial airplane. [1] Its body is built from a Carbon fiber composite weighing approximately 900 pounds total. This lighter weight allows Aquila to stay up in the air for longer. [1] Aquila will be solar-powered. Roughly 5000 W is claimed to be able run Aquila at 60,000 feet. More research as to the effect of high altitude on the effectiveness of solar cells is required. Current PV Cells are roughly 15% efficient, and Facebook will likely need to use next-generation PV cells to operate more efficiently and provide enough energy to stay aflight for the targeted 90 day period. [1]

5,000 Watts of Energy is equivalent to that of three hair dryers. Unmanned autopilot with delocalized, connected control center operated by engineers will fly the aircraft. [2] Aquila glides at a slow speed to conserve energy, gliding through the air in essence. At 60,000 feet, its cruising altitude, it is above jet stream, and so is not as effected by its harsh winds.

The air is 10 times more dense at sea level altitude than cruising altitude. Density of air can have an effect on drag, and so Facebook must explore this potential consequence. [2] The aircraft will thus operate at faster speeds at higher altitude (~80 mph) due to thinness of air.Approximately half of its weight stems from "high-energy batteries." [2] At roughly 450 pounds, or ~200 kg, these batteries must be able to store enough power to fly the aircraft and operate its heavy data transmission payload.This added weight can deform its light wings coupled with environmental stressors and so Facebook must use software to create a detailed design that accounts for these consequences.

One of Facebook's biggest challenges is the need to make Aquila weatherproof, or able to stay in the air for 90 days. [2] Laser technology is used to run the actual communication payload, pinpointing receivers on the ground and transmitting data from more than 11 miles away while in motion. Aquila can theoretically transmit Internet spanning across a 60-mile earth-surface diameter from above. Satellites can be used to expand reach and enhance connection for hard to access areas. [2]

Facebook plans to use assistive take off technology with a ground vehicle to generate sufficient energy and velocity for takeoff while the rest will be supplied by the batteries, receiving energy from the aircraft's solar cells. Providing enough energy to lift the giant glider to such high altitudes and remain there remains one of Facebook's biggest challenges.



Some of Facebook's biggest challenges ahead include but are not limited to the following. Developing lasers able to track "a dime-sized moving receiver" at a distance of roughly 11 miles away to transmit data. [3] Developing and implementing effective solar cells and batteries to keep Aquila in air for 90 days. [1] Acquiring enough sun to store in batteries to run during short days and nights, i.e. winter. [3] Ultra efficient design to make it an economically viable plan in terms of operation and maintenance, determining their effectiveness and dependability as a source of internet. [2] Crowd-sourcing effectively to share information and expand the internet delivery market, notably collaboration with Google, who they themselves are employing a similar project with balloons will help expedite this mission. [3]

Competition and private incentives in this new realm must try to be limited to advance the goal of this apparent philanthropic win-win development. This is still a work in progress, with testing only being applied to small-scale gliders, and only lasting 90 minutes, and so much work is left to make this project a reality, but what is for certain is that it may well be feasible, efficient however? Remains to be determined. [2]

The internet is extending its reach and looking to the sky on the wings of Facebook's project Aquila, the end game being to have a fully integrated world population. This defies geographical limitations and is proving to be the next frontier in tech's rapid reach over everyday lives across the globe. This is a project in the works with significant implications, but what is for certain is that these tech companies see little as inexplorable when it comes to expanding their reach. Quite literally, Facebook is in the process of drastically transforming our definition of the world and how we interact, the rest there is to change that is.

© Amir Bashti. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. Cellan-Jones, "Facebook's Drones - Made in Britain," BBC News, 21 Jul 16.

[2] C. McGoogan, "Facebook's Solar-Powered Internet Drone Takes Maiden Flight," The Telegraph, 22 Jul 16.

[3] V. Goel and Q. Hardy, "A Facebook Project to Beam Data from Drones is a Step Closer to Flight," New York Times, 30 Jul 15.