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Facebook Gets Its Drone On

Ray Le Maistre
7/22/2016

Is it a bird? Is it…. OK, enough of that. It's Aquila, the giant unmanned high-altitude Facebook drone designed to help provide Internet access to remote areas that has, according to the social media giant, just taken its first major test flight.

You can read a full account of the flight and why Facebook is investing in drones, satellites and other wireless technologies, in this official blog, which includes a video with some stunning images.

Aquila, The Internet 'Eagle'
Aquila is the Latin word for eagle and, in classic mythology, was the pet eagle of Zeus that carried his thunderbolts. Today, it is a giant, solar-powered drone delivering packets... (Photo from Facebook)
Aquila is the Latin word for eagle and, in classic mythology, was the pet eagle of Zeus that carried his thunderbolts. Today, it is a giant, solar-powered drone delivering packets... (Photo from Facebook)

As a reminder, this is an aircraft that, according to Zuckerberg's crew, will be able to fly for up to three months at a time (solar-powered) and provide connectivity from more than 60,000 feet using millimeter wave (mmWave) and laser technology. It's actually quite mind-boggling.

Why should we care? Well, whether people like it or not, the whole world is becoming a digital society that, in one way or another, is going to be connected to networks and for many that will open up many new opportunities that will affect their lives and prospects. But more than half of the world's 7.4 billion inhabitants are not connected to the Internet. Bridging the digital divide is important -- everyone should at least have the chance to benefit from the information and communications capabilities that networks have to offer, if they choose to.

Should bridging that divide be the responsibility of global megacorps such as Facebook and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)? Well, they're investing in these programs and in technology because either a) others aren't b) others are doing it too slowly, or c) others are doing it in a way that doesn't meet their aspirations/goals. They are filling what they see as a void and it's hard to imagine they are going to announce the suspension of programs such as Internet.org anytime soon.

For more on such remote connectivity initiatives, see:

— Ray Le Maistre, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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Faisal Khan
Faisal Khan
7/23/2016 | 6:06:37 AM
Innovative idea
Very innovative. Can result in extending internet coverage to remote areas. Would be interesting to know what kind of technology it is using. Will it need some licensed spectrum ?
mendyk
mendyk
7/22/2016 | 2:03:57 PM
Re: Still something surreal about this
Mark Zuckerberg is an ideal standard-bearer for altruism and idealism in the Bizzaro World we now find ourselves in.
Gabriel Brown
Gabriel Brown
7/22/2016 | 12:57:02 PM
Re: Still something surreal about this
Sure -- moreover they seem to be targetting dispersed people without much money. One of the reasons terrestrial systems haven't got to these locations yet is because these users can't afford the connectivity fees. GSM is mostly there already, but the upgrade to 4G is too expensive.

So it looks like Facebook is driven by a mix of altruism, idealism, and hubris. And just maybe some breakthrough technology that makes all this viable at an operational level.

I don't object to them having a go. I admire aspects of it. But ultimately the way to sustain networks is to have them make a profit for those who operate them.
mendyk
mendyk
7/22/2016 | 12:36:45 PM
Re: Still something surreal about this
The concept has been around for decades now in various forms. Balloons, drones, whatever. The technology "works," as far as delivering some wireless broadband coverage. What doesn't work -- or hasn't worked -- is a business model. It may be an order of magnitude cheaper to launch and maintain a fleet of drones than it is to build out terrestrial infrastructure (wired or wireless), but the leap to profitability involves a lot more than that. There's a lot more potential profit in blanketing more populated areas with better coverage.
Gabriel Brown
Gabriel Brown
7/22/2016 | 12:23:52 PM
Re: Still something surreal about this
Now I know a bit more about this (and Facebook's mobile access strategy in general), I find it less "surreal", but nevertheless "all quite amazing".

On the business case, Facebook is aiming to catalyze the market by developing technology and reference platforms, but have someone else actually deploy and operate it. There are good reasons for this, but even so, I think the company is going to have to get its hands dirty and really prove these technologies can be operated over the long-term, at scale, profitably, if it is to draw in serious 3rd party operators.

Facebook has talked about possibly open-sourcing the cost data it has used to develop the business cases for its Connectivity Lab projects. If it follows through, we'll see how rooted in reality they are. I must say, I'm intrigued. They reckon with UAVs they can be 10 x cheaper than what could be achieved with terrestrial technologies. I suspect they are being highly selective in the use-cases they are comparing to get that 10x lower cost number, but I'm less inclined to think these are total pie-in-the-sky (geddit?) ideas than I was previously.
mendyk
mendyk
7/22/2016 | 10:08:00 AM
Re: Still something surreal about this
I wonder if a business-case analysis of these types of projects would pass the sniff test.
Ray@LR
[email protected]
7/22/2016 | 7:49:45 AM
Still something surreal about this
Howvere this turns out, this can only be positive in terms of R&D in many ways.... it's fascinating stuff, if still somewhat surreal... 3 months in the stratosphere and enabling remote communities to upload selfies (and yes, I know, do important life-chaging things like access online medical help and check the weather forecast etc)

It's all quite amazing.
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