Face­book ready to test gi­ant drone to pro­vide In­ter­net ser­vice in re­mote ar­eas

The China Post - - WORLD BUSINESS - BY BRAN­DON BAI­LEY

Face­book says it will be­gin test flights later this year for a so­lar­pow­ered drone with a wing­span as big as a Boe­ing 737, in the next stage of its cam­paign to de­liver In­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity to re­mote parts of the world.

Engi­neers at the gi­ant so­cial net­work say they’ve built a drone with a 43- me­ter wing­span that weighs less than 455 kilo­grams. De­signed 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 vi­ral videos — and view com­mer­cial advertising — engi­neers in a unit called the Con­nec­tiv­ity Lab are work­ing on a dif­fer­ent set of prob­lems.

For one thing, they are de­sign­ing a laser com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem they hope will be ac­cu­rate enough to hit a tar­get the size of a dime at a dis­tance of 18 kilo­me­ters, said Yael Maguire, di­rec­tor of the unit, which is re­spon­si­ble for drones, satel­lites and other high- tech com­mu­ni­ca­tions projects.

“There’s a lot of mov­ing parts here that have to work in con­cert,” said Maguire, dur­ing a press brief­ing at the com­pany’s head­quar­ters.

The pro­ject is part of a broader Face­book ef­fort that also con­tem­plates us­ing satel­lites and other high- tech gear to de­liver In­ter­net ser­vice to hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple liv­ing in re­gions too re­mote for con­ven­tional broad­band net­works.

Other tech com­pa­nies have launched sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives. Google is ex­per­i­ment­ing with high- al­ti­tude bal­loons as well as drones and satel­lites. Mi­crosoft has funded a pro­ject that will trans­mit In­ter­net sig­nals over un­used tele­vi­sion air­waves.

Face­book also has a sep­a­rate but re­lated ini­tia­tive that works with wire­less car­ri­ers to pro­vide lim­ited mo­bile In­ter­net ser­vice at no cost, in coun­tries where res­i­dents are too poor to af­ford tra­di­tional wire­less plans.

But the com­pany in­vited re­porters Thurs­day to hear an up­date on its ef­fort to pro­vide ser­vice to about 10 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion who live in re­gions where it’s not prac­ti­cal or too ex­pen­sive to build the usual in­fra­struc­ture for In­ter­net ser­vice.

Ser­vice to 50-km Ra­dius

Face­book’s drone was de­vel­oped in part with en­gi­neer­ing ex­per­tise that joined the com­pany when it ac­quired a Bri­tish aerospace startup, As­centa, last year. Face­book en­gi­neer­ing vice pres­i­dent Jay Parikh said the team cre­ated a de­sign that uses rigid but light- weight lay­ers of car­bon fiber, ca­pa­ble of fly­ing in the frosty cold tem­per­a­tures found at high al­ti­tudes, for an ex­tended pe­riod of time.

The plan calls for us­ing helium bal­loons to lift each drone into the air, Parikh said. The drones are de­signed to climb to 28,000 me­ters, safely above com­mer­cial air­lin­ers and thun­der­storms, where they will fly in cir­cles through the day. At night, he said, they will set­tle to about 18,000 me­ters to con­serve bat­tery power.

Each drone will fly in a cir­cle with a ra­dius of about 3 kilo­me­ters, which the engi­neers hope will en­able it to pro­vide In­ter­net ser­vice to an area with a ra­dius of about 50 kilo­me­ters.

For the plan to work, Face­book’s engi­neers are also count­ing on a re­cent break­through they’ve made in laser op­tics, which Maguire said would al­low them to trans­mit data at up to 10 gi­ga­bits per sec­ond. That’s com­pa­ra­ble to fiber net­works on the ground but about 10 times faster than stan­dard laser sig­nals, he said. Face­book is de­sign­ing the drones to trans­mit sig­nals from one air­craft to another, so they can re­lay sig­nals across a broader area on the ground, he added.

While Face­book has built and tested smaller pro­to­types at a plant in the United King­dom, it’s look­ing at a site in the United States for test­ing the full- sized drone, said Parikh, who de­clined to be more spe­cific.

Face­book hopes to share the tech­nol­ogy with telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions car­ri­ers and de­vel­op­ment agen­cies, which it hopes will build and op­er­ate the drone net­works, Parikh said. “We’re not go­ing to op­er­ate this our­selves,” he added. “We’re fo­cused on find­ing ways to drive the in­dus­try to move faster.”

CEO Mark Zucker­berg has ac­knowl­edged Face­book’s busi­ness will ben­e­fit in the long run if more peo­ple gain In­ter­net ac­cess, but he says the ef­fort isn’t driven by profit- seek­ing. In­stead, he has said it’s based on the con­vic­tion that In­ter­net ser­vice can bring a va­ri­ety of eco­nomic and so­cial ben­e­fits to de­vel­op­ing na­tions.

AP

This un­dated im­age pro­vided by Face­book shows the Aquila, a high-al­ti­tude, long-en­durance air­craft with a wing­span as big as a Boe­ing 737, de­signed by Face­book’s aerospace team in the United King­dom.

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