Facebook`s Aquila, global connectivity and Solar City`s unique position.

By Heshitha Perera

On June 28, 2016; a black object in the shape of a boomerang — a plane without a tale — flew through the calm morning skies of Yuma, Arizona. It was none other than Aquila, the social media giant: Facebook`s first step towards a connected world. Aquila, in the context of the Bible — an eagle — aptly resembled the majestic liftoff. Facebook founder Mark Zukerberg and the crew of Facebook`s connectivity lab — which aims at developing ways to make affordable internet access possible in communities around the world — rejoiced at the sight.

Aquila, A solar powered droned that is aimed at beaming internet, plans on providing internet to 4 billion people. With a 42-meter wingspan, this resembles the size of a Boeing 737 passenger jet, and weighs less than an average family car. Although the team targeted to fly Aquila for 30 minutes, the drone successfully flew for 96 minutes. When launched Aquila will be able to beam internet with a 60 mile communication diameter for up to 90 days. The fleet of drones will fly at altitudes of over 60,000 to 90,000 feet above normal air traffic and weather.

Facebook has many challenges to resolve, prior to achieving its objective of creating a fleet of drones that fly over rural areas to beam internet. The batteries that are used to power Aquila at night still add a significant amount of weight. Adding the lasers and communication equipment — which is required to beam internet — would further increase the weight of the drone, reducing its energy efficiency. Aquila also has a long way to go in defeating the record for the longest solar powered flight — two weeks. With the war chest the social media giant holds, the company will overcome these challenges in time.

57% of the world’s population, closer to 4 billion people is currently cut off from the rest of the world without internet connectivity. The digital darkness — has caused due to the high cost involved in implementing hard wired communication systems. If the internet was made available in these areas, the economic, social and cultural developments that could be achieved have no limits.

Facebook however is not the only company that has the vision of diminishing the digital darkness that sadly exists in the digital age. Companies such as Google, One Web and SpaceX are also experimenting with methods of achieving global connectivity. While One Web and SpaceX plans on launching a large number of low orbiting satellites, Google`s project loon is experimenting with balloons.

Regardless of what medium becomes predominant in achieving global connectivity, the methods mentioned above (balloons, Drones and Satellites) require low cost — durable solar panels, and compact battery packs. With usage of solar panels and compact battery packs not being limited to global connectivity, this emerging new business segment could boost demand in the sustainable energy market segment.

California based Solar City, is ideally placed to cater for this emerging need, especially with Tesla — Solar City`s sister company — making an offer to merge the two companies. While Tesla is currently in the process of building its “Gigafactory” which is aimed at building low cost battery packs, Solar City can create fully integrated low cost solar panels. The only pressing question is, are they prepared to be a significant supplier in the global connectivity race?