Facebook drones: 'There are no rules for this.'

FB engineer Andrew Cox talks about creating internet-providing drones

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is much like Alexander the Great in that he has no online lands left to conquer. Facebook has around 50% of the online world on its network, with many markets at saturation point. So what do you do? Get everyone who isn’t online, online!

Speaking at the Commercial UAV Show in London, Andrew Cox, Chief Engineer at Facebook for the social network’s drone-based Project Aquila, spoke about the inception of the project and its current timeline.

So why is the world’s biggest social network interesting in drones?

“Facebook is a mission-driven company. There are still billions of people that do not have internet access at all,” he said. “60% of the world does not have internet. It’s a split world and it’s the 4 billion [without internet access] we’re aiming at.”

Cox said there are three main barriers to wider internet adoption: infrastructure, affordability, and awareness. While making people aware of the benefits of the internet isn’t part of the project, bringing access to remote areas in a way that’s cost effective is precisely what Facebook are working towards.

With a wingspan equal to that of a Boeing 737 and weighing in at around 400kg – the same as a Prius – these solar powered drones are designed to sit some 60,000ft in the sky and beam down internet-providing lasers to rural areas.

Flying at nearly twice the height of commercial airspace – where the air is calmer and solar power is more easily harvested – the eventual goal is to have relays of drones flying at low speeds for around three months at a time. They fly at higher altitudes during the day, then descend slowly at night to conserve energy. The drones are designed to cover an area roughly 30,000ft across.

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Cox said Acquila is “designed to supplement existing terrestrial infrastructure”, and the specially-designed lasers beaming down connectivity poses a challenge akin to ’shooting a Euro coin from a distance of 10km while both targets are moving.’  The drones are easily deployable, take two weeks to build, and can be dissembled and put into a box for transport.

It took 20 people 15 months to develop the initial UAV. The first Aquila drone flew for 96 minutes in June, albeit at a fairly low altitude and without the solar panels. According to Cox, all the systems “worked really well,” with a long duration, high altitude test being conducted by the end of 2017.

“We’re predicting that in ten to 15 years we’ll have thousands of aircraft,” he said. The company is currently looking at 35-40 countries to deploy this in. Cox refused to say which, but using Internet.org as an example, most likely Africa and LATAM.

Although a long way off, the ownership model would be a combination of drones owned Facebook itself (possibly through Internet.org), some owned by the countries they are operating in, and some owned by entrepreneurs (and presumably big companies such as telcos too).

No rules

Unsurprisingly given the rapid pace of drone development, regulation is still a stumbling block and Cox spoke of “political boundaries.”

“Regulation wise, there are no rules for aircraft of this type right now,” he said.

“There is a consortium of several large companies, including AirBus, and what they’re doing is working together to talk to the regulators to try and help develop the rules.”

“It’s not a done deal, it’s not a given, there’s going to be quite a lot of effort to do this, and it’s taking time, but it will happen.”

What might have been

In other reality, however, it’s not UAVs but airships that will be providing internet connections to rural areas. “We looked at dirigibles quite hard,” said Cox, before explaining that practicalities around payload, altitude, cost, and the fact most would have need to be tethered to the ground (bearing in mind that 60,000ft altitude) would have made the project “too challenging.”


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Commercial drone flights: Poor rules, NASA, & the future