A new Facebook lab is intent on delivering web access by drone

Written by New York Times | San Francisco | Updated: Mar 29 2014, 16:29pm hrs
FacebookFacebook is buying Ascenta, a small UK company whose founders helped to create early versions of an unmanned solar-powered drone, Zephyr.
Watch out, Google. Facebook is gunning for the title of Worlds Coolest Place to Work. And its arsenal includes unmanned drones, lasers, satellites and virtual reality headsets.

Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and chief executive of Facebook, announced that the company was creating a new lab of up to 50 aeronautics experts and space scientists to figure out how to beam internet access down from solar-powered drones and other connectivity aircraft.

To start the effort, Facebook is buying Ascenta, a small British company whose founders helped to create early versions of an unmanned solar-powered drone, the Zephyr, which flew for two weeks in July 2010 and broke a world record for time aloft.

We want to think about new ways of connectivity that dramatically reduce the cost, said Yael Maguire, engineering director for the new Facebook Connectivity Lab. We want to explore whether there are ways from the sky to deliver the internet access.

Its the second head-spinning announcement from Facebook this week and the third this year. On Tuesday, the company said it would spend at least $2 billion to buy Oculus VR, a Southern California start-up that is developing virtual reality headsets for playing games and other uses. Last month, it said it would buy WhatsApp, a messaging app that offers free texting around the world, for as much as $19 billion.

The lab is part of Zuckerbergs ambitious Internet.org project to bring the internet

to the two-thirds of the worlds population without internet access. Reaching

the 10% of the worlds population that are in areas difficult to reach via traditional internet solutions is the initial focus of the connectivity lab, said Maguire.

The company envisions drones that could stay aloft for months, even years, at a time at an altitude of more than 20 km from the surface of the earth far above other planes and the ever-changing weather.

And to make the network more efficient, Maguire said, the planes would transmit data to each other using lasers before finally sending it back down to the earth. You need to create an internet in the sky, he said.

Maguire acknowledged that the whole thing sounds a bit pie in the sky. We want to pursue a lot of directions some risky that might not work, he said.

But the end goal of connecting the world to the internet is important to Facebook and the company is determined to get there, he said.

Matthew Eastwood, an analyst with IDC, a technology research firm, said Facebook was trying to serve a population that no telecommunications provider had ever made money from. You have to give them credit for thinking the way the telcos dont.

With Facebook, the more I think about it drones and virtual reality and the excessive amount of money theyre paying for WhatsApp theyre making these decisions in lieu of having a solid business practice in place, said Brian Blau, an analyst at the research firm Gartner. Sometimes I get the feeling that Facebook is really just trying to keep up with the Joneses. Or perhaps the Googles.