Facebook is getting ready to test drones that will give the world more access to the Internet, the company announced today.
Dubbed Aquila, Facebook's new solar powered drone has a wingspan of a 737 airplane, but weighs less than a car, according to a video posted to the Facebook Engineering page. It'll fly above commercial air traffic, so it won't be disruptive, plus it can fly without landing for a whopping three months. That's more than any other aircraft to date, according to the company. From the air, it would then beam lasers down to Earth, carrying data at speeds supposedly 10 times faster than the previous state-of-the-art.
The project is part of Internet.org, a non-profit organization Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg founded in 2013 to promote greater access to the Internet in the developing world, where billions of people still live without it. The drones are one piece of a larger push at Facebook, which also includes specialized apps tuned to work in places with low connectivity, to get more people online. "Ten percent of the world’s population lives in remote locations with no internet infrastructure," wrote Jay Parikh, Facebook's head of engineering, on the company's blog. That's where Aquila would come in handy.
Of course, Facebook isn't doing this as charitable work. If the Aquila projects works, it would give more people access to the Internet, where they can join Facebook, allowing the company to provide advertisers with new, previously unreachable customers. That means more revenue for the company. According to a quarterly earnings call yesterday, roughly 75% of the company's revenue came from mobile ads, and in the developing world, mobile is king. Google and other big tech companies have similar connectivity initiatives going.
Facebook will start testing its gigantic drones later this year to see if it can really fly for the purported 90 days.
We often think of tech companies like Google and Facebook as software companies, where coders typing at desks create the Internet for us. But Facebook's video about the drones makes clear how much investment Facebook had to make in physical equipment and hardware to get Aquila going. The company's engineers are working in what look like giant hangars, with formidable factory equipment.
Companies that used to just do software are incredibly creeping into the physical world, with sizeable investments in developing tangible objects. In recent years, Google has snatched up robotics companies, including the DARPA-funded Boston Dynamics, famous for developing the frightening (and headless) Big Dog robot. Google is also working on autonomous cars, biosensing contact lenses, and delivery drones, in addition to buying Nest and Dropcam, which sell thermostats and cameras, respectively, to consumers.
What that means is that these companies will increasingly be embedded in our physical world, not just through the apps running on our devices, but through physical objects.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.