MENLO PARK (California) • Facebook has moved several steps closer to fulfilling its grand ambition of building an Internet network in the sky - it says it is ready to start test flights of a high-altitude drone designed to provide Web access to remote locations.
The Aquila drone is solar-powered; has a wingspan on a par with that of a Boeing 737; weighs less than a small car; can stay aloft for three months or so; and will beam Internet service to the ground from 18,000m to 27,000m up.
Facebook said on Thursday it had found a way to boost the capacity of the lasers that will eventually beam data between the drone network and the ground. A team in Britain has been working on the drone for 14 months, and the company says it is ready for in-flight tests in the upper atmosphere, most likely in the United States.
"We have finished Plane No. 1," vice-president for global engineering and infrastructure Jay Parikh said at a news conference at the firm's Silicon Valley headquarters.
Facebook, whose main business is operating the world's largest social network, has been working on projects to extend Web access to the four billion or so people who do not have it - including tie-ups with phone carriers to offer free access to Facebook and other basic services in developing countries through its Internet.org app.
"Our goal is to accelerate the development of a new set of technologies that can drastically change the economics of deploying Internet infrastructure," Mr Parikh said in a blog post. "We are exploring different approaches to this challenge, including aircraft, satellites and terrestrial solutions."
But this would not lead to Facebook becoming an Internet operator or carrier, he said. "Our goal is to provide the technology to other partners," he said.
The drones are part of a long-term project to deliver the Internet to those living far away from cell towers or fibre-optic lines.
Data fired off by the lasers can hit a target "the size of a dime from over 16km away", Mr Parikh said.
"When finished, our laser communications system can be used to connect our aircraft with each other and with the ground, making it possible to create a stratospheric network that can extend to even the remotest regions."
He said these technologies would be useful because "10 per cent of the world's population lives in remote locations with no Internet infrastructure", and deploying conventional systems in such areas could be costly.
Google - Facebook's rival for the attention of Internet users - is pursuing its own plan, called Project Loon, to provide Internet access through a network of drifting high-altitude balloons. Sri Lanka said this week that it had signed a pact to eventually bring the Loon project there, although Google noted that many details remained to be settled.
In Facebook's vision, hundreds of drones would be lifted into the sky by helium balloons, and left to circle far above commercial airliners and weather systems. The network would be supplemented by satellites orbiting even higher up.
However, much work still needs to be done on the technology required to make the system a reality, including devising better batteries that can keep each plane aloft for three months and building lasers for data transmission that can track a moving receiver the size of a dime from 18km away.
Like a watch, "there are a lot of moving parts that need to move in concert to make the network work," Mr Yael Maguire, the director of engineering at Facebook's connectivity lab, said at the news conference.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES