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 convoy of the aircraft would deliver internet access around the globe.
Zuckerberg arrived at the Yuma Proving Ground before sunrise. “A lot of the team was really nervous about me coming,” Zuckerberg said in an interview with The Verge. A core group of approximately 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 first and foremost for its brutal summer temperatures.
On this day, Aquila would have its first practical 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 perception. It’s a key player 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 allow 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 consistent 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.