Facebook’s goal of networking the world means extending communications to everyone on the planet. Facebook has started to test new approaches to ground-based systems. And it’s continuing to work on its futuristic drone-based communications system, Aquila.
At the company’s F8 developer conference held in San Francisco today, Facebook vice president of engineering Jay Parikh talked a little more about Aquila’s development, and how it would use laser links to bring the internet to rural areas in developing countries.
According to Parikh, Facebook’s UAV platform looks like a giant boomerang. “We need to fly it for months at a time,” he said, “so we had to invent a new aircraft to accomplish this; most aircraft aren’t designed to fly for months and beam lasers across the sky to bring Internet to rural communities.”
At this point, the plane, about the size of a passenger jet, is nothing but wing:
“We took off the tail,” Parikh said, “that saves mass and drag, but makes it hard to steer, so we had to do a ton of work in steering components.”
The Facebook engineers also removed the cockpit, he said, a sophisticated flight control system to replace it, and eliminated fuel tanks, the drone will be solar powered. Which leaves the wing.
“We built that out of carbon fiber,” Parikh said, “to make it light—and to look cool.”
Aquila will connect by laser to an internet access point in a city, then feed that connection out to rural communities. Eventually, he says, the drones will extend the networks by connecting to each other with lasers.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.