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Facebook Quietly Ended Its Rural Internet Laser Drone Program

The Aquila technology was part of a plan to provide high speed internet to remote, rural areas around the globe.

by Kaleigh Rogers
Jun 27 2018, 3:21pm

Image: Facebook

One of Facebook’s ambitious plans to bring broadband internet to remote and rural communities around the globe quietly folded Tuesday, according to a blog post from Facebook’s engineering team.

The program focused on designing and constructing the Aquila, a giant drone that could beam down internet connection via laser beams from 60,000 feet. Able to remain in the stratosphere autonomously for three months at a time, the Aquila was part of Facebook’s vision for bringing internet to unserved areas. But three years after the company debuted its fully-constructed aircraft, it has shuttered the project.

“As we've worked on these efforts, it's been exciting to see leading companies in the aerospace industry start investing in this technology too — including the design and construction of new high-altitude aircraft,” Yael Maguire, Facebook’s director of engineering, wrote in the blog post. “Given these developments, we've decided not to design or build our own aircraft any longer, and to close our facility in Bridgwater.”

Facebook has a vested interest in making sure as many people as possible have access to the internet: so they can all log on to Facebook. That’s why the company has invested in project like Aquila and other internet-expanding technology, like low-power cell base stations.

But it seems the aerial internet market has gotten more crowded, and Facebook is more than happy to step back and let other companies spend the money to expand access.

“Going forward, we'll continue to work with partners like Airbus on high altitude platform station (HAPS) connectivity generally, and on the other technologies needed to make this system work, like flight control computers and high-density batteries,” Maguire wrote. “On the policy front, we’ll be working on a proposal for 2019 World Radio Conference to get more spectrum for HAPS, and we'll be actively participating in a number of aviation advisory boards and rule-making committees in the US and internationally.”

Typically we only hear about Facebook’s next big investment, so news of it taking a step back from one project is unusual, but not unexpected. The project hadn’t had any major leaps forward in two years, and it’s clear Facebook is more excited about other rural broadband projects that might have more immediate impacts. The end result, of more people online and on Facebook, would be the same after all.

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