A few weeks ago it was rumored that Facebook would buy Titan Aerospace for long-duration solar-powered drones to provide Internet access in the developing world. Today, however, the company announced that it was actually buying Ascenta, a small British firm that does the same thing (or perhaps it will buy both of them and has only announced one). From the New York Times:
Watch out, Google. Facebook is gunning for the title of World’s Coolest Place to Work. And its arsenal includes unmanned drones, lasers, satellites and virtual reality headsets.
Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and chief executive of Facebook, announced on Thursday that the company was creating a new lab of up to 50 aeronautics experts and space scientists to figure out how to beam Internet access down from solar-powered drones and other “connectivity aircraft.”
To start the effort, Facebook is buying Ascenta, a small British company whose founders helped to create early versions of an unmanned solar-powered drone, the Zephyr, which flew for two weeks in July 2010 and broke a world record for time aloft.
“We want to think about new ways of connectivity that dramatically reduce the cost,” said Yael Maguire, engineering director for the new Facebook Connectivity Lab. “We want to explore whether there are ways from the sky to deliver the Internet access.
The lab is part of Mr. Zuckerberg’s ambitious Internet.org project to bring the Internet to the two-thirds of the world’s population without Internet access. With partners like Qualcomm and Nokia, Facebook is working on technology to compress Internet data, cut the cost of mobile phones and extend connections to people who can’t afford them or live in places that are too difficult to reach.
That last part of the problem — reaching the 10 percent of the world’s population that are in areas difficult to reach via traditional Internet solutions — is the initial focus of the connectivity lab, said Mr. Maguire.
Currently, satellites can deliver Internet to sparsely populated areas with spotty Internet connections, but the cost is very high, said Mr. Maguire.
Facebook wants to explore whether access could be delivered more cheaply through both new types of satellites and unmanned aircraft.
The company envisions drones that could stay aloft for months, even years, at a time at an altitude of more than 12 miles from the surface of the earth — far above other planes and the ever-changing weather.