Facebook Drone Project Close to Flight

Did you hear about the Facebook Drone Project? No…Well… Facebook has moved several steps closer to fulfilling its grand ambition of building an Internet network in the sky, announcing on Thursday that it has built its first unmanned drone and found a way to vastly increase the capacity of the lasers that will eventually beam data between the drone network and the ground.

A team in Britain has been working on building the solar-powered drone, known as Aquila, for about 14 months. Now the company says that the unmanned aerial vehicle, made of ultralight composite materials and weighing 880 pounds, is ready for in-flight tests in the upper atmosphere, most likely in the United States.

Facebook, whose primary business is operating the world’s largest social network, has been working on a range of projects to extend Internet access to the four billion or so people who don’t have it, including teaming with phone carriers to offer free access to Facebook and other basic services in developing countries through its Internet.org app.

The drones are part of a long-term project intended to deliver the Internet to people who live far away from cell towers and fiber optic lines. Although Facebook is designing the drones and the network as well as solving technical problems, it says it will share its knowledge with partners and hopes to enlist telecommunications companies, aircraft manufacturers and perhaps governments in the actual construction and operation of the system.

Google, Facebook’s rival for the attention of Internet users, is pursuing its own plan, called Project Loon, to provide Internet access through a network of drifting high-altitude balloons. Sri Lanka said this week that it had signed a pact to eventually bring the Loon project to that country, although Google said many details remained.

In Facebook’s vision, hundreds of drones will be lifted into the sky by helium balloons and left to circle at altitudes of 60,000 to 90,000 feet — far above commercial airliners and weather systems. The network would be supplemented by satellites orbiting even higher up.

However, there remains a significant amount of work to do on the technology required to make the system a reality, including devising better batteries that can keep each plane aloft for three months and building lasers for data transmission that can track a moving receiver the size of a dime from 11 miles away.

Facebook is approaching its drone program almost as it would a software “hackathon.” Teams working on issues like battery power and lasers are exchanging ideas with other people working on artificial intelligence and Facebook’s data centers.

Facebook also hopes to speed development by making available much of its research and many of its discoveries without cost. The arrangement is similar to an open-source software project, where anyone can draw on a core of publicly available code but is obligated to share improvements with the community. Facebook has already used this method in building computer servers.

Source: NY Times