MENLO PARK, Calif. — Facebook on Thursday revealed more details about its plan to find cost-effective ways to provide Internet access to the 10% of the Earth’s population that lives far from cell towers or land lines.
The solution: Drones the size of a Boeing 737 — launched by helium balloons.
Powered by the sun, each 1,000 lb. drone would fly lazy circles more than 11 miles above the Earth, providing broadband-level Internet for people in a 50-mile radius below.
The team’s dream is “a backbone of the Internet using lasers in the sky,” said Yael Maguire, director of Facebook’s Connectivity Lab.
The planes, dubbed Aquila, (Latin for “eagle”) would be unmanned. Each would spend three months aloft before slowly floating down to earth “like a feather” for refit, said Jay Parikh, vice president of engineering at Facebook.
The effort is part of a project launched a year ago by Facebook’s Connectivity Lab to provide Internet access to the 4 billion people around the world who currently lack it.
While many people live in sufficiently connected or urban areas where current methods, such as wires and cellular phones, can provide Internet access, millions of people live where a connection isn’t possible.
“Standard telecommunication infrastructure doesn’t reach them. If they pulled out a phone, it would have nothing to connect to,” said Parikh.
Facebook has set out to find a way to give it to them.
The answer the company’s engineers have come up with involves sending planes that can beam down access far above commercial airspace, where there are no commercial flights to run into and no weather to interfere with flight.
The plane, which is virtually all wing, is about 100 feet wingtip to wingtip.
“If you’re thinking of your little quad copters, this isn’t what we’re building,” said Parikh.
The first test vehicle was built this year by Ascenta, a Somerset, England-based solar drone company that Facebook purchased in 2014.
One of Facebook’s biggest breakthroughs in the project has been increasing data capacity of the lasers that will connect the planes with a land-based fiber line that is the link to the Internet.
Facebook’s team has developed a system whose ground-based laser can transmit information to a dome on the underside of the plane at rates 1,000 times faster than has previously been possible.
It’s something like reading a CD with a laser head just after it’s been thrown into the air like a Frisbee — from 11 miles away.
“The team has figured out how to do a laser communion system that can go tens of gigabits in a second,” Parikh said. “Doing that in fiber is routine, but doing it through the air has never been done.”
None of this means Facebook plans to go into the ISP business, or airplane manufacturing, said Parikh.
“Our intention is not to be an operator here. We want to inspire and get the industry to move faster,” he said.
Facebook’s team plans to spend the second half of 2015 doing structural tests on the one plane they’ve build, “making sure it flies,” said Parikh.
“We still have development to go on the batteries, solar cells and avionics, there are huge challenges, this has never been done before,” said Maguire.