Facebook has abandoned its plan of developing high-flying drones for delivering internet beams over regions with low connectivity, an initiative under its Aquila which it started in 2014. The company made the announcement in a blog post by Yael Maguire, director of engineering at Facebook.
The company is also shutting down its facility in the UK which managed drone design and development and has reportedly laid off 16 employees. Four years ago, Aquila was envisioned as an ambitious project which would launch drones powered by solar energy into the atmosphere. The drones would remain airborne at high altitudes for a few months and provide internet connectivity to remote regions world over.
The original plan involved using balloons to lift unmanned drones (with the wingspan of a Boeing 737 aeroplane) to an altitude of 90,000 feet. There, they would fly for as long as three months and transmit information using lasers.
“We were able to demonstrate that an aircraft of this design was viable with two successful, full-scale test flights,” Facebook said in its blog post.
The Aquila project conducted two public test flights of a prototype “Aquila” drone; the first test in 2016 seriously damaged the aircraft during landing (Facebook said the test was successful and mentioned the landing mishap in the passing). With this announcement, Facebook says it will no longer invest in building an aircraft of its own since everybody else is doing it. Now, instead of building aircraft of its own, Facebook says it will focus on working with partners on high-altitude internet delivery systems and will participate in policy-making with regard to securing spectrum and establishing federal rules around the operation of such systems.
Going forward, we’ll continue to work with partners like Airbus on HAPS connectivity generally, and on the other technologies needed to make this system work, like flight control computers and high-density batteries. 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.
Alongside the net neutrality breaching zero-rated service, Free Basics, the Aquila internet drone project was seen as Facebook’s push to get more people online and get them to on Facebook. The company clarified to The Verge that while the Aquila Project with its partners will continue, it has abandoned designing and/or building its own drones.