Social media giant Facebook is working with aeronautics giant Airbus to test drones in Australia, and to develop a solar-powered drone to beam the internet across the world, according to reports from TechCrunch. Last year Facebook had grounded its ambitious plan to develop a solar-powered drone for the purpose.
The new project is being called a model that is designed for “defence, humanitarian and environmental missions.” The Zephyr is a HAPS — “High Altitude Pseudo Satellite” and is quite similar to Facebook’s erstwhile and unused Aquila drone blueprint; it uses solar power and can remain airborne for “months.
The Model S version chosen by Facebook has a 25-meter wingspan, can operate at up to 20km altitude and it broadcasts to the ground by using millimetre-wave radio.
The Facebook and Airbus were designed to test a payload from the social network — doubtless internet broadcasting gear — but, since the document covers planning and meetings prior to the tests, the outcome or results have not been made available in the public domain yet.
The TechCrunch reports that NetzPolitik used a request under Australia’s Freedom of Information Act, to become privy to a document that indicates a collaborative between the two companies last year regarding test flights scheduled for November and December 2018. Reportedly, the duo has also collaborated before on communication systems for satellite drones.
While there is no clarity on specifics of those trials an Airbus’ Zephyr drone is said to have been used and a Facebook spokesperson told NetzPolitik, “We continue to work with partners on High Altitude Platform System (HAPS) connectivity. We don’t have further details to share at this time.”
Facebook’s drone projects are its boldest attempts aimed at bringing connectivity to remote areas, but it has also used software and existing infrastructure to try to make internet access more affordable.
This has landed some earlier Facebook projects in controversies, for example its Internet.org project was outlawed in India because it violated net neutrality by selecting the websites and apps that could be used. The project was since renamed Free Basics — likely promoted by the Indian setback — it has been scaled back in some markets. Still going strong however Facebook said last year that the program has reached nearly 100 million people to date. Beyond that top line number, little is known about the service, which also includes paid tiers for users.
TechCrunch reported no further comment from Facebook about details of its solar powered drone other than the company’s intent to develop a host of other projects that are aimed at increasing internet access worldwide, particularly in developing regions such as Asia, Africa and Latin America. Facebook already has a public-private WiFi program aimed at increasing hotspots for internet users who are on the move.