Facebook expands empire with solar-powered laser-beaming internet drone

Aquila, the Latin for eagle, is a telling name to pick for an aircraft built for a US company with almost Roman ambitions. As the Romans built the roads, Facebook is aiming to create its own web infrastructure – by bringing internet access to the 10% of the world’s population currently off-grid.

Facebook expands empire with solar-powered laser-beaming internet drone

The drone is an intimidating piece of hardware. With a wingspan of around 140ft, it’s equivalent in size to a Boeing 737, but only a fraction of the weight. Aquila needs to be light to manage an elevation of 60,000-90,000ft (18-27km) for three months at a time. In the pictures released by Facebook it stares chiseled and eyeless at the camera, poised on blue stilts.     

Its pointedly angular body is laden with solar panels, designed to provide enough energy for the drone to climb to its maximum height during the day before gliding downwards at night. It’s designed to carry a laser that beams data between other drones and down to the ground. These lasers will be the connecting lines of Facebook’s internet network.Facebook aquila drone laser

Jay Parikh, Facebook’s vice president of engineering, said in a statement that the company has “designed and lab-tested a laser that can deliver data at tens of gigabits per second – approximately ten times faster than the previous state-of-the-art in the industry – to a target the size of a dime from more than ten miles away.

“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.”Facebook aquila drone base

From a technical perspective, Aquila captures the imagination. The aviation technology behind the drone, which was first tested in UK skies earlier this year, is an interesting contrast to the high-altitude balloons at the heart of the rival Google’s Project Loon, which can’t be steered. But the fact a private company is developing this technology inevitably raises ethical questions about net neutrality.

Facebook says it will not offer connectivity directly to customers, and instead intends to partner with local internet service providers. This is a similar decision to the one the company took with its

Internet.org project, which launched in 2013. That project has come under fire from a number of critics in both developing and developed countries for limiting free access to a handful of services, including Facebook and government websites.  

Facebook may not be planning to be a direct internet service provider, but it’s still building the routes that carry the data, and that gives the company power. Mark Zuckerberg has previously said that connectivity is a basic human right. If that’s true, it should be a public service, nationalised as a utility.

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