Facebook takes aim at expanding internet access using laser-equipped drones

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Facebook has finished building the first full-size version of Aquila, its internet-beaming drone

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In its quest to connect all corners of the globe – and get even more people signing onto the social networking juggernaut – Facebook has completed the first full-scale model of its internet-broadcasting drone. Dubbed Aquila, the solar-powered aircraft is made to fly for months at a time and has a wingspan equal to that of a Boeing 737, yet weighs less than a car.

Facebook first revealed its plan to deliver internet access to remote regions via drone in March last year. Its thinking is that there are about four billion people who aren't yet online and while many of these live within range of 3G wireless signals, there's still around 10 percent that don't have access to any internet infrastructure at all.

In Facebook's view, the most cost effective way to bring these people online is not by relying on traditional methods used elsewhere, like fiber-optic cables and cell towers, but in developing new technologies. Today it announced two very promising developments for a different form of internet access delivery.

The first is the completion of a full-size version of its Aquila aircraft. Facebook claimed to have successfully tested versions of this back in March, though there wasn't a whole lot of technical detail to go along with the announcement. It has now offered a look inside its Connectivity Lab where the research is taking place, and the finished product is an impressive sight.

With a wingspan of 42 m (138 ft) and a carbon fiber frame, Aquila is designed to fly at altitudes between 60,000 and 90,000 ft (18,200 and 27,400 m) for up to 90 days. The idea is to direct a ground-based internet signal to a mother aircraft, which then daisy-chains the connection to other drones gliding around the area.

How exactly this signal can be relayed to other drones is another focus for those toiling away in the Connectivity Lab. The team now claims to have successfully tested a laser communications system where the precision required is akin to hitting a dime from more than 10 miles away. Through their testing, they say the system is capable of delivering data at 10 GB per second, which is 10 times the speed of the current state-of-the-art laser technology.

Facebook acknowledges the technology still has a long way to go, and says it harbors no ambitions to operate the completed system itself. Rather, it would hand over the reins to local operators and other partners.

Google is another heavy-hitter going to great lengths to bring internet to remote regions. Its Project Loon initiative isn't all that different to Facebook's drones, in that aircraft would float through the stratosphere with advanced communications systems in tow. Google does seem a little bit further along in its efforts, however, with the Sri Lankan government yesterday announcing plans to deploy Project Loon balloons over the country to blanket every inch of the island with internet connectivity.

You can hear from those working on Facebook's drones in the video below.

Source: Facebook

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