Facebook grounds plans for a fleet of broadband-emitting aeroplanes

27 Jun 2018

The Facebook Aquila drone project took off but failed to soar. Image: Facebook

The dream of solar-powered aeroplanes serving communities with internet no longer has wings for Facebook, but it is willing to let the aerospace industry take the controls on high-altitude broadband.

Facebook has revealed that it is ditching plans for internet-emitting drone aeroplanes under the Aquila project, saying it is no longer feasible.

As a result Facebook, is closing the facility in Bridgwater in the UK where the 747-sized drones were being developed, with 16 employees being laid off.

‘Facebook has already connected nearly 100m people as a result of our efforts’

The project, which began in 2014 as an effort to find a way to wirelessly serve the 4bn people globally without access to the internet, had achieved a number of successful take-offs and landing.

Facebook said that while the project had also achieved numerous technological breakthroughs, it is more feasible to work with established aerospace firms rather than build its own aircraft.

Did Facebook aim too high?


The Aquila drone in flight. Image: Facebook

“High-altitude platform station (HAPS) connectivity requires more than just an aircraft,” Facebook product manager Yael Maguire explained in a blogpost.

“We’ve made important progress on some of the other key parts of the system, including setting new records using millimetre-wave (MMW) technology in air-to-ground and point-to-point communication.

“And then, we more than doubled our MMW record with 40Gbps connectivity simultaneously in both directions from a ground location to a circling Cessna aircraft over seven kilometres away.

“We’ve also pushed for improvements to spectrum and aviation policy, including more consistency in the global regulatory environment to open up HAPS to new entrants.”

Maguire said that other aerospace companies are investing in HAPS technology and the design and construction of high-altitude aircraft.

“Given these developments, we’ve decided not to design or build our own aircraft any longer, and to close our facility in Bridgwater. Going forward, we’ll continue to work with partners like Airbus on HAPS connectivity generally, and on the other technologies needed to make this system work, like flight control computers and high-density batteries. On the policy front, we’ll be working on a proposal for [the] 2019 World Radio Conference to get more spectrum for HAPS, and we’ll be actively participating in a number of aviation advisory boards and rule-making committees in the US and internationally.”

While Project Aquila is grounded forever, Maguire said that the company’s ambition of connecting the next 4bn people will continue to soar.

“Connectivity for everyone, everywhere, is one of the great challenges of our generation. Facebook has already connected nearly 100m people as a result of our efforts. And we are continuing to invest in developing next-generation technologies like Terragraph, working with partners on new infrastructure builds like our fibre project in Uganda, and supporting entrepreneurs in programmes like Express Wi-Fi — all to help connect the 4bn people who still do not have access to the internet. We’re excited about what’s next.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years