Facebook Aims to Bring Internet Service to Remote Areas with ‘Aquila Drone’

Facebook's Connectivity Lab has completed work on an unmanned aircraft it calls Aquila, which can send Internet signals from the sky to users below.

by Nick Shively, Los Angeles Times / July 31, 2015
(TNS) --Social media giant Facebook seeks to bring the Internet to remote areas of the world with its latest project involving a huge drone it has built.

The Menlo Park, Calif.-based firm said Thursday that its Connectivity Lab has completed work on an unmanned aircraft it calls Aquila with the ability to send Internet signals from the sky to users below.

The company hopes that someday the drone -- the size of a Boeing 737 aircraft -- will be able to fly above remote areas and serve millions of people worldwide that currently don't have access to the Internet or Facebook.

High-Speed Battle: Google Balloons vs. Facebook Drones

(TNS) -- It’s a high-altitude contest between two of the hottest tech giants, Google and Facebook. Google’s Project Loon and Facebook’s Aquila are battling it out in the skies. The goal is the same for both: covering two-thirds of the world’s population that is unconnected and living in remote areas with affordable, universal access to the Internet.

Google’s Project Loon

On July 28, Mangala Samaraweera, the foreign minister of Sri Lanka, announced a historic partnership with Google to cover every inch of Sri Lanka with high-speed Internet coverage via its Project Loon. If this comes to fruition, Sri Lanka will become the first country in the world to have universal Internet coverage.

So what is Project Loon? Its network of balloons travelling on the edge of space are designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters. Project Loon balloons will float in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes and the weather. Each balloon can provide connectivity to a ground area about 40 km in diameter using a wireless communications technology called LTE (long-term evolution), commonly known as 4G LTE. To use LTE, Project Loon has partnered with telecommunications companies to share cellular spectrum. It will help people access Internet everywhere directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices. The balloons will relay wireless traffic from cell phones and other devices back to the global Internet using high-speed links.

While Google is bringing Internet via balloons, Facebook is going to beam it via drones and lasers, as Mark Zuckerberg announced on July 30.

While both companies remain tight-lipped about costs, it would be naive to imagine that providing an Internet blanket would not be a lucrative proposition for the companies.

-- Nandita Mathur, Mint, New Delhi, distributed by Tribune Content Agency LLC.

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.

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 aircraft has a 140-foot wingspan, similar to the Boeing 737, but it’s constructed with lightweight carbon fiber and can stay airborne for months by using solar power, officials said.

“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.”

Facebook isn’t the only corporation that wants to expand Internet coverage to hard-to-reach areas all over the world.

Google’s Project Loon has a similar ambition, but it instead 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.

Although Project Loon is still in the development phase, the Aquila has very realistic goals, said Drone Analyst CEO Colin Snow. He said that Facebook’s project is “technically feasible and highly probably,” but that there are always possibilities for problems.

Potential issues for the Aquila could arise from unexpected maintenance requirements or disruption from solar flares, but there should be minimal concern regarding solar power or Internet connectivity, according to Snow.

Facebook will clearly benefit from more Internet users in the long run, but Zuckerberg said that this initiative isn’t driven by profits and that the focus is providing economic and social benefits to developing nations.

©2015 the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.