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Facebook's solar-powered laser drone masterplan is starting to take shape

The drones will beam down internet from 90,000 feet.

Source: Facebook Developers/YouTube

FACEBOOK SAYS IT will begin test flights later this year for a solar-powered drone with a wingspan as big as a Boeing 737.

The company says it’s part of its campaign to deliver internet connectivity to remote parts of the world.

Engineers at the giant social network say they’ve built a drone with a 43 metre wingspan that weighs less than 453kg. Designed to fly at high altitudes for up to three months, it will use lasers to send internet signals to stations on the ground.

Though Facebook is perhaps thought of as just a website, engineers in a unit called the Connectivity Lab are working on a different set of problems.

For one thing, they are designing a laser communications system they hope will be accurate enough to hit a target the size of a coin at a distance of 11 miles, said Yael Maguire, director of the unit, which is responsible for drones, satellites and other high-tech communications projects.

PastedImage-10207 The connectivity will be beamed down by laser. Source: Youtube/FacebookDevelopers

“There’s a lot of moving parts here that have to work in concert,” said Yael Maguire director of the unit.

The project is part of a broader Facebook effort that also contemplates using satellites and other high-tech gear to deliver internet service to hundreds of millions of people living in regions too remote for conventional broadband networks.

Other tech companies have launched similar initiatives. Google is experimenting with high-altitude balloons as well as drones and satellites. Microsoft has funded a project that will transmit internet signals over unused television airwaves.

PastedImage-45410 The drones are being specially built at Facebook's Connectivity Lab. Source: Youtube/FacebookDevelopers

Facebook says its plans are to provide service to about 10% of the world’s population who live in regions where it’s not practical or too expensive to build the usual infrastructure.

Facebook’s drone was developed in part with engineering expertise that joined the company when it acquired a British aerospace startup, Ascenta, last year.

Facebook engineering vice president Jay Parikh said the team created a design that uses rigid but light-weight layers of carbon fiber, capable of flying in the frosty cold temperatures found at high altitudes, for an extended period of time.

The plan calls for using helium balloons to lift each drone into the air, Parikh said. The drones are designed to climb to 90,000 feet, safely above commercial airliners and thunderstorms, where they will fly in circles through the day. At night, he said, they will settle to about 60,000 feet to conserve battery power.

Source: CNET/YouTube

Each drone will fly in a circle with a radius of about 3km, which the engineers hope will enable it to provide internet service to an area with a radius of about 50km.

For the plan to work, Facebook’s engineers are also counting on a recent breakthrough they’ve made in laser optics, which Maguire said would allow them to transmit data at up to 10 gigabits per second. That’s comparable to fiber networks on the ground but about 10 times faster than standard laser signals, he said.

PastedImage-79769 The drones will have a wingspan of 43 metres. Source: Youtube/FacebookDevelopers

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged Facebook’s business will benefit in the long run if more people gain internet access, but he says the effort isn’t driven by profit-seeking. Instead, he has said it’s based on the conviction that internet service can bring a variety of economic and social benefits to developing nations.

First published 30 July

Read: Facebook is building a fleet of internet-connected super-drones >

VIDEO: Watch a very young Mark Zuckerberg trying to explain ‘The Facebook’ >

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Associated Press

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