NEW YORK - Social media giant Facebook seeking to provide bring cost effective Internet connectivity to remote areas of the world using a huge drone it has built to beam connectivity down to people from an altitude of 60,000 to 90,000 feet.
The Menlo Park, Calif.-based firm said Thursday that its Connectivity Lab has completed work on an unmanned aircraft called Aquila with the ability to send provide connectivity as it circles a remote region for up to 90 days.
The new program is an extension of the Internet.org project launched last year with mobile operators across 17 countries to find ways to provide internet connectivity to the more than 4 billion people who are not yet online.
"Many of these people live within range of at least a 3G wireless signal, and our work in the last year with mobile operators across 17 countries has provided more than a billion people with access to relevant basic internet services," Facebook stated.
The new program will target the 10 percent of the world's population living in remote locations with no internet infrastructure, and where things like fiber-optic cable, microwave repeaters and cell towers may be a challenge to deploy cost-effectively.
Among the option being explore are use of aircraft, satellites and terrestrial solutions, states Jay Parikh, Facebook vice president of Global Engineering and Infrastructure in a statement.
"Our intention is not to build networks and then operate them ourselves, but rather to quickly advance the state of these technologies to the point that they become viable solutions for operators and other partners to deploy," Parikh states.
Helping Facebook realize its ambition, its Connectivity Lab has completed work on a full-scale version of Aquila the high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft designed by Facebook aerospace team in the UK.
Ready for flight testing. Aquila has the wingspan of a 737 but weighs hundreds of times less. When deployed, it will be able to circle a remote region for up to 90 days, beaming connectivity down to people from an altitude of 60,000 to 90,000 feet, states Parikh.
In addition the Facebook communications team in Woodland Hills, California, has designed and lab-tested a laser that can deliver data at 10s of Gb per second approximately 10x faster than the previous state-of-the-art in the industry to a target the size of a dime from more than 10 miles away.
"We are now starting to test these lasers in real-world conditions. When finished, our laser communications system can be used to connect our aircraft with each other and with the ground, making it possible to create a stratospheric network that can extend to even the remotest regions of the world," Parikh states..
A Facebook spokeswoman said the company is discussing regulations with local governments where the drones would be flying, but she said she couldn't comment on specifics yet.
In order for this to work, the firm said, a ground station will transmit radio signals to the aircraft and then the signals will be relayed to users on the ground.
"The Aquila places Facebook one step closer to achieving this goal by using new laser technology that can deliver Internet access 10 times faster than any previous device," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement.
Zuckerberg said these new technologies will continue to be tested during the next few months, and the objective is to eventually provide underserved areas with a network of drones, each one providing Internet access within a 31-mile radius.
"Facebook has a very, very big and bold mission, which is to make the world more open and connected," said Yael Maguire, Connectivity Lab director of engineering. Its goals are "primarily focused on regions where there just isn't Internet connectivity, and that's why we're really invested in solar-powered aircraft and lasers as a mechanism to do that."
Google's Project Loon has a similar ambition, but instead of drones and lasers it uses balloons that float in the stratosphere to form a communication network. These balloons intend to connect people to the Internet through LTE-enable phones and other devices.
Earlier this week, Sri Lanka signed a pact to eventually bring the Loon project to that country, although Google said many details remained.
"Although Project Loon is still in the development phase, the Aquila has very realistic goals," said Drone Analyst CEO Colin Snow reported LATimes.
Snow feels the Facebook's project is "technically feasible and highly probably," but that there are always possibilities for problems like unexpected maintenance requirements or disruption from solar flares.
But there should be minimal concern regarding solar power or Internet connectivity, according to Snow