Facebook builds a solar drone in scheme for far-flung internet access

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg hopes to deliver internet to remote areas via a solar-powered drone. The company tested a full-size version this week.

Stephen Lam/Reuters/File
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is seen on stage during a town hall at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on Sept. 27, 2015.

Mark Zuckerberg has announced his newest scheme to bring internet to the masses with drone delivery, saying Facebook tested a solar-powered drone successfully on Thursday.

Drones are being suggested as the saving innovation to everything from universal online access to an aeronautical "Pony Express" package delivery program by Amazon, Inc., as USA Today reported. It's too soon to say whether Facebook's drone-delivery plan will produce any more tangible results than Amazon's plan, which was announced in 2013 but is still in testing.  

The Facebook founder's promise to create universal online access is more globally ambitious than the 19th-century, pony-powered system of mail relay across the then-uncharted American West. About 40 percent of the world's population currently has access to the internet, meaning Mr. Zuckerberg is aiming to reach 4 billion people – 1.6 billion of whom live far from mobile broadband networks. 

"If you want to [connect] these 1.6 billion people who don’t have a network, it can’t be the same solutions today that aren’t affordable for telcos," he told The Verge. 

Zuckerberg sees increased internet access as a path forward not only for Facebook's expansion and bottom line, but also in the future of humanity. He wants to develop the stuff of sci-fi, such as virtual reality communication and over-the-web healthcare, and he wants to do it using a fleet of drones that circle the globe. 

Facebook does not really plan to enter aeronautical manufacturing, Zuckerberg told The Verge, but hopes to engineer a model for internet-delivery drones, then sell or give away the technology to other companies, governments, or even non-profits.

"It's not something you necessarily expect Facebook to do, because we're not an aerospace company," he told The Verge's Casey Newton. "But I guess we're becoming one."

This is not Facebook's first attempt at using unorthodox means to improve internet access. Facebook's first efforts at universal internet met resistance, however, as regulators in both India and Egypt banned Facebook's Free Basics internet service, Max Lewontin wrote for The Christian Science Monitor:

While Facebook has pointed to the service’s humanitarian potential, critics have long argued that Free Basics’ offer of only a small number of websites, and its partnerships with a small number of mobile carriers — in India, only a single carrier offered the service — violates net neutrality (the idea that users shouldn’t be directed to particular sites or blocked from accessing others).

The drone plan marks a fresh attempt, and so far, it has seen technical success. Thursday's flight of Facebook's solar-powered Aquila drone was its first test of the full-size drone model, which has a wing-span larger than a 737 passenger jet, Agence France-Presse reported. The test marked a "major milestone" for the social media company's expansion into internet service providing.

"It was so successful that we ended up flying Aquila for more than 90 minutes – three times longer than originally planned," Jay Parikh, Facebook's global head of engineering and infrastructure, said in a statement.

To deliver on its goal, however, Facebook will have to break the boundaries of known science and engineering. The longest solar-powered flight to date in an unmanned autonomous vehicle was two weeks. Facebook has promised to fly internet-providing drones through Earth's most remote regions for up to three months.

"We're encouraged by this first successful flight, but we have a lot of work ahead of us," Mr. Parikh said. "This will require significant advancements in science and engineering to achieve."

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