Facebook Seeks Partner Countries for Drone Trials
Facebook Inc. is in talks with several countries for trial broadcasts of internet content from highflying drones, underscoring the social media company’s push to provide bandwidth to poorly connected parts of the globe.
Several companies aim to provide bandwidth to far-flung places that can’t easily be connected by terrestrial links. Alphabet Inc.’s Google this year ran the first tests of its “Project Loon” that seeks to connect users via high-altitude balloons. OneWeb Ltd. is working on a large constellation of satellites to deliver fast global internet service from space.
But many of the projects face big obstacles. Drone and balloon projects require approvals from national governments to operate in their airspace. Other regulators have to approve the use of radio spectrum to broadcast signals to the ground. That makes working with governments crucial for the companies to succeed.
Martin Gomez, Facebook’s director of aeronautical platforms, said a number of countries may be involved in trials. “Some of the countries that are really clamoring to host this first demo have huge regions where there is zero or very poor internet connectivity,” he said on the sidelines of a Royal Aeronautical Society drone conference in London.
Mr. Gomez said around 57% of the world’s population still isn’t connected. The rate of growth in connecting people has slowed, he added, suggesting “the low-hanging fruit have been plucked.”
The demonstrations could take place in 2018, he said, though an exact schedule hasn’t been fixed. Facebook’s drone project took a big step forward on June 28, when it took to the air for the first time in Yuma, Ariz. The aircraft, dubbed Aquila, which weighs less than 1,000 pounds and has a 138-foot wingspan—larger than a Boeing 737 single-aisle plane—remained aloft for 96 minutes, more than an hour longer than first planned.
Mr. Gomez said the first flight yielded about a terabyte of data that has had to be analyzed before Aquila resumes flight trials.
The vehicle eventually is intended to fly above 60,000 feet, well above the altitude where commercial airliners cruise, and remain aloft about three months. Battery power is the limiting factor for the solar-powered aircraft’s endurance, Mr. Gomez said.
Facebook hasn’t said when Aquila will fly again.
Aquila is only part of Facebook’s strategy to boost internet availability around the world. The Menlo Park, Calif., company had planned to provide bandwidth to remote areas via satellite. That initiative suffered a major setback last month when the satellite was destroyed on the launchpad during the test of the Falcon 9 rocket designed by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX.
Facebook had teamed with French satellite operator Eutelsat Communications SA to provide the service using the Israeli-made spacecraft. After the explosion during a prelaunch test of the SpaceX rocket, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said he was “deeply disappointed.”
Mr. Gomez said the space launch failure hasn’t affected plans for the drone program. The satellite was intended to beam signals to even more sparsely populated regions than markets the drone is intended to serve.
Drone experts said that getting an international agreement for drone use across borders remains years away. Regulators in Europe and the U.S. are still sorting out how to safely permit such operations.
“We all know we have a colossal regulatory burden ahead of us,” Mr. Gomez said.
The flight trials in the coming years are largely aimed at convincing regulators the unmanned planes are safe to operate and reliable. “My goal is to get us to the point where we have an airplane airborne all the time,” Mr. Gomez said.