Facebook refines drones, plans for solar power on wings

At its F8 conference in San Francisco and on Facebook (NASDAQ: FB), the social network responsible for much of the traffic on mobile devices let the world know it is also looking out for the future, with a successful first test flight of a drone in the UK.

Facebook's unmanned aircraft appear to be bigger than your average drone. "The final design will have a wingspan greater than a Boeing 737 but will weigh less than a car," CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted on Facebook. "It will be powered by solar panels on its wings and it will be able to stay at altitudes of more than 60,000 feet for months at a time."

He explained that aircraft like these "will help connect the whole world because they can affordably serve the 10% of the world's population that live in remote communities without existing internet infrastructure."

 The final design will have a wingspan bigger than a Boeing 737 but weigh less than a car. (Image source: Facebook)

Zuckerberg has previously said that the goal of Internet.org is to make affordable access to basic Internet services available to every person in the world. Internet.org is a Facebook-led initiative bringing together technology leaders, nonprofits and local communities to connect the unconnected. Participants include Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC), MediaTek, Nokia (NYSE:NOK), Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), Opera and Samsung.

During his keynote, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer showed pictures of the early prototype, code named Aquila, that Facebook is using to test for aerodynamics as part of an initiative he said the company will talk about more later this year.

Video during Schroepfer's keynote showed the "wings" being assembled. Aquila is the first complete concept to come out of Facebook's acqui-hires of engineers from UK-based Ascenta, unveiled nearly a year ago, TechCrunch reported.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Facebook executives don't expect the company to get the drones actually up and beaming Internet access anytime soon due to the need to vet safety and communication features, as well as forming partnerships with carriers.

Jay Parikh, vice president of engineering, told the WSJ that they are working toward a real test flight this summer sometime. The solar and battery technology needed to power the Aquila drone have only recently been developed, and what was available even a year ago "wasn't good enough for what we're trying to do with this plane," he told the publication. 

Elsewhere, advancements in drone technology are moving quickly as well. Amazon has been conducting tests with unnamed vehicles in the UK as well, and recently complained about how slowly the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) takes to approve outdoor tests in the U.S. Amazon had applied for permission to test a drone that turned out to be obsolete by the time the FAA finally approved it.

Facebook's drones are among several endeavors to get affordable Internet access to all the corners of the world. OneWeb is on a mission to use small cell-like terminals and low-earth orbit satellites to connect the world, while Google is pursuing both drones and balloons to deliver Internet access.

Last year, Google acquired Titan Aerospace, the drone maker based in Moriarty, N.M., where it recently was granted an FCC license to conduct tests. Facebook reportedly was interested in picking up Titan last year before Google swooped in.

For more:
- see this Wall Street Journal article (sub. req.)
- see this Fortune article
- see the TechCrunch report
- see this Engadget article

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