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At F8, Facebook gives peek at Aquila solar-powered Internet drones (+video)

Facebook F8 showed off the advancements the company has made in its drone program.

At this week’s F8 developers conference, Facebook has highlighted exactly how far the company is looking to expand beyond its social-network roots.

On Thursday, the tech giant announced that it had completed the first test flights for its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones, in the United Kingdom.

According to the New York Times, these Aquila drones weigh as much as a small car and have a wingspan of 95 feet, larger than that of a Boeing 737 plane. The UAV can reportedly maintain an altitude of 60,000 to 90,000 feet for three months at a time.

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The drone was built by Ascenta, which was acquired by Facebook last year, and was developed as an extension of Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, which aims to bring Web access to even the most remote regions of the planet. Ascenta designed the UAV to reach the 10 percent of the world that lacks even basic infrastructure, says Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook, in a post.

“We’re going to have to push the edge of solar technology, battery technology, composite technology,” Yael Maguire, the engineering director of Facebook's Connectivity Lab, says at the Social Good Summit in New York City on Monday, while discussing the lab’s work on drones. “There are a whole bunch of challenges.”

Mr. Maguire says that to maintain a constant connection to the Internet, the drones will need to fly between the 60,000 and 90,000 feet “above weather, above all airspace,” which may protect from or create unexpected challenges since there are few regulations for aircraft that fly above 60,000 feet.

“All the rules exist for satellites, and we’re invested in those. They play a very useful role, but we also have to help pave new ground,” Maguire says.

Facebook plans to begin more testing this summer, but, as reported by the NYT, full commercial deployment could take years.

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