Facebook has revealed that it will begin testing its solar-powered drone project later this year.
The social network hopes that the huge aircraft, which have a wingspan of 140 feet, will be able to provide Internet access to remote areas of the world.
The drones will be capable of flying at high altitude non-stop for up to three months and will transmit signals to specialised stations on the ground, enabling people to get online. Although, the project would prove hugely beneficial to less connected parts of the world, Facebook is not developing the programme for purely altruistic reasons.
Facebook and many other technology firms are approaching market saturation in the developed world and need to find alternative avenues for growth. By exposing new countries to its technology, first through an Internet delivery service, Facebook will be able to expand rapidly. There is also competition for this new battleground, with Google’s Project Loon and Microsoft’s exploration into Internet TV airwaves both being pursued.
The drone project is being developed with the help of the expertise that Facebook acquired when it bought British aerospace firm Ascenta. The team has created a carbon fibre aircraft that weighs less than 1,000 pounds and can withstand the extremely low temperatures found at high altitude.
Facebook has already experienced some success with its other attempt to provide online access in less developed countries. Internet.org has launched in Kenya, Bolivia, India and several other countries and enables users to access a select number of websites and online services free of charge using a smartphone.
However, for approximately 10 per cent of the world’s population it is not practical to create the infrastructure required to provide Internet access. For these parts of the world, Facebook’s overhead drones provide a possible solution, but it is not yet clear when the aircraft will be ready to fly.