Washington: Investors wondering where Facebook’s advance tech research money is going got an update.
Facebook said it designed and built a high altitude solar powered plane in 14 months, and that tests will begin later this year. Add that to the social network’s other big bets on virtual reality hardware and networking infrastructure.
Engineers at the giant social network say they’ve built a drone with a 43 metre (140-foot) wingspan that weighs less than 460 kilograms (1,000 pounds). Design to fly at high altitudes for up to three months it will use lasers to send internet signals to
stations on the ground.
Though Facebook is better known for online software that lets people share news with friends, watch videos- and view commercial advertising- engineers in a unit called the Connectivity lab are working on a different set of problems.
Using the solar powered drone could mean “quickly bringing connectivity to an area that needs it,” he saie at a presentation at Facebook’s California headquarters.
“Our goal is to accelerate the development of a new set of technologies that can drastically change the economics of deploying Internet infrastructure,” Facebook vice president of global engineering and infrastructure Jay Parikh said in a blog post.
“We are exploring a number of different approaches to this challenge, including aircraft satellites and terrestrial solutions.” But he said this would not lead to Facebook becoming an Internet operator or carrier.
“Our goal is to provide the technology to other partners,” he said. Aquila drones and using lasers to provide Internet connections are the work of a project devoted to finding ways to provide online access to the billions of people in the world who don’t yet have it.
The drone will fly at 60,000 to 90,000 feet during the day, putting it above commercial airplanes and conventional weather patters. At night, when its batteries aren’t being charged by the Sun, Aquila will fly lower to save energy. Facebook can rotate its drones every three months with a near-instantaneous hand off, Mr. Maguire said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Facebook is currently testing its laser system in California. It said its prototype can deliver 10 gigabits of data a second, much faster than what’s considered state-of-the-art in the industry. The network of drones is being designed for rural areas, where the location and intensity of demand can shift suddenly, Mr. Maguire said. Satellites are better suited for densely populated zones.
One of the engineering challenges is generating enough power to keep the drone airborne while still powering all its systems. Mr. Maguire said he wants to take advantage of highly efficient semiconductors used in the cellular industry. But there is still work to be done. “The battery technology we need doesn’t exist,” he said.
Even so, regulatory issues — not technology — are likely to dictate the speed of the program. Sorting out issues such as radio frequency spectrum and gaining approval to fly over countries’ airspace could take much longer, Mr. Maguire said.
Even though Facebook’s drone program is expensive, it is a drop in the company’s R&D budget. “Investors allow companies like Facebook or Google to explore this kind of non-core opportunities if in the long term, they can be viable,” said Ben Schachter, an analyst at Macquarie Group. “As long as the core business of the company maintains its strength, I think investors will accept it.”