If companies like Facebook and Google have their way, everyone in the world will have access to the internet within the next few decades. But while these tech giants seem to have all the money, expertise, and resolve they need to accomplish that goal—vowing to offer internet connections via things like high-altitude balloons and flying drones—Yael Maguire makes one thing clear: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
“We’re going to have to push the edge of solar technology, battery technology, composite technology,” Maguire, the engineering director of Facebook’s new Connectivity Lab, said on Monday during a talk at the Social Good Summit in New York City, referring to the lab’s work on drones. “There are a whole bunch of challenges.”
Facebook formed its Connectivity Lab earlier this year. Dovetailing with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s new venture, Internet.org, its goal is to build and launch a fleet of solar-powered drones that can connect the billions of people currently living off the grid to the internet.1 It arrived just a month before Google agreed to acquire Titan Aerospace, a startup that makes its own solar-powered drones, and according to Maguire, such projects are a long way from success. There are substantial operational, technical, and regulatory hurdles these companies with have to overcome before any of their technologies can, well, take flight.
In order to fly its drones for months or years at a time, as it would have to do in order to provide consistent connectivity, Maguire explained, Facebook’s drones will have to fly “above weather, above all airspace,” which is anywhere from 60,000 to 90,000 feet in the air. That puts these drones on tricky regulatory footing, since there are essentially no regulations on aircraft that fly above 60,000 feet in the air. “All the rules exist for satellites, and we’re invested in those. They play a very useful role, but we also have to help pave new ground,” Maguire said.
Facebook and its counterparts will also have to find a way around regulations dictating that there must be one human operator to every drone, which could drastically limit the potential of such an innovation to scale. For proof, Maguire pointed to a recent solar drone demonstration by a British company, which ended after two weeks to give the pilots a break. “It’s like playing a videogame for two weeks straight with no rest,” he said. “We need a regulatory environment that will be open to one pilot perhaps managing 10 or 100 drones. We have to figure these things out.”
Still, despite the obstacles, Maguire said he expects the Connectivity Lab’s drones will be ready to begin testing by next year. Just where that will be Maguire can’t say. The company has also identified 21 locations in Latin America, Asia, and Africa where it would like to deploy its connectivity projects, which Maguire says are likely two to five years away. But Facebook will not be running these projects itself, Maguire warns. It’s actively looking for partners on the ground—be they governments, communities, or local businesses—who will deploy the technology the Connectivity Lab has created.
“We’re hoping we’ll be able make this technology open for other people to use…because we think they have a more scalable model for getting the technology out there,” he says. “It’s going to be an enormous effort. Trying to connect everyone is the problem of our generation.”