The final piece of futuristic technology Facebook showed off at the "A Place to Connect" event wasn't actually there, mostly because it wouldn't have fit in the room. Nevertheless, the Aquila (pronounced uh-KEY-ah) drone project is aiming at connecting the world through unmanned flights at more than 60,000 feet.
Built in Somerset, England, the Aquila drone is huge, with a wingspan of 141 feet (hence its absence from the event). It is clad in solar panels, which generate energy which is stored. During the day, the drone falls in altitude, generating energy. As night falls, it starts to rise up to 60,000 feet in the air, using the energy it stored during the day. This is the plan, at least. So far the drone has only spent done 90-minute test flights, including one where it crashed on landing, causing "substantial" structural damage, according to Facebook.
The project started off as an independent consultancy company, named Ascenta. Facebook purchased the company for $20 million in 2014 -- a pittance when you think Instagram was acquired for $1 billion -- as a way to accelerate Internet connectivity in the developing world. Alphabet's X (formerly Google X) is also doing its own Internet connectivity project, Loon, which uses large hot air balloons to provide Internet to remote regions of the world, such as Africa, New Zealand, and parts of Asia and South America. (Watch: How Balloons Can Play a Role In Broadband Delivery.)
This might look like a well-meaning move by Facebook, and it is. There are other intentions, though: Aquila is part of Facebook Internet.org not-for-profit organization, bringing low-cost or free Internet around the world. Of course, since this Internet is provided by Facebook, Internet.org encourages users to use the social networking platform for just about everything, from messaging to gaming, news to buying and selling items.
The 'A Place to Connect' room. Sadly, the 141-foot Aquila drone was not present.
Facebook has 1.9 billion users around the world, but that number has plateaued in the last year or so as the Western World uses Facebook more and more. However, there are still 5 billion not on Facebook, and a little less than not connected to the internet. If these countries and its citizens can be connected to the Internet through Facebook, it will provide the next 2 billion on the platform, making it even more powerful than it already is, and generating a lot more revenue and therefore profit.
So while Facebook's drone is a great use of technology for good -- the company has previously said a drone could be deployed to natural disaster areas, giving those caught up in earthquakes or tsunamis vital internet connectivity -- it's ultimately for the advancement of Facebook as a platform. However, getting Internet-provider drones, or balloons from Google, up into the skies is still quite a way off. Despite that, it's great to see how technology initially developed for warfare is being used to make the world a more connected place, albeit through Facebook.
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