Yael Maguire, the engineering director at Facebook‘s Connectivity Lab, has revealed further details about the social media giant’s plans to expand internet access to communities worldwide. In order to achieve global connectivity, the company has been discussing using drones, or planes as they prefer to call them, that will constantly circle in the skies. In conversation with Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore, Maguire stated the planes would be “roughly the size of a commercial aircraft, like a 747.” As astounding as that revelation is on its own, it also raises regulatory questions. Not only are there unresolved issues around launching and airspace controls, but with an anticipated need for thousands of planes, the company says it is impractical for one person to control only one plane at a time as current legislation requires.
Maguire states that two thirds of the world’s population lacks internet access. Facebook and its partners Internet.org have turned to the idea of using drones to achieve worldwide internet coverage after assessing some of the problems with using satellites. But the use of drones brings its own set of issues. As Maguire said, “In order for us to fly these planes — unmanned planes that have to fly for months, or perhaps years at a time — we actually have to fly above the weather, above all airspace. That’s between 60,000 and 90,000 feet. Routinely, planes don’t fly there, and certainly not drones.” The drones would also have to be solar powered in order to be able to fly continuously without refueling.
While Facebook anticipates the planes will be the size of 747s, they intend to make them much lighter. Maguire says a current prototype is the length of “about six or seven Priuses, but is the weight of four of the tires of a Prius.” With the project aimed at increasing internet access in developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the angle of the sun over the countries the drones service will also impact the design of a solar-powered unit.
In addition to the prototype designers, the Facebook Connectivity Lab has a team devoted to policy issues for the project. The company believes one person could and would have to manage up to 100 planes, but current regulations only allow one person to manage a single drone. Maguire said of the logistics, “We can’t have one person per plane if we want to figure out how to connect the world.” Other regulatory issues to be ironed out include the legality of beaming internet connectivity to remote and regional communities in sovereign countries, as well as the fact that the airspace above 60,000 feet is not currently regulated at all. The team aims to at least get one drone in the air for a test flight in 2015, hopefully in U.S. airspace. Roll out for worldwide coverage is planned for three to five years’ time.
Screengrabs from Internet.org via YouTube