When Mark Zuckerberg first announced in 2016 that they were ready to test out Project Aquila, the world was ready to be amazed. Was the Facebook CEO’s dream of world connectivity about to come to fruition? Was his idea of a massive drone capable of delivering internet signals to the far reaches of the globe possible? Was this an act of pure altruism, or just a way to solidify Zuckerberg’s world wide domination? Unfortunately, the project literally crashed and burned.
Project Aquila was designed to be a massive drone that could fly around the globe. It was about the size of a Boeing 737 jet, but weighed less than 900lbs. The drone was equipped with solar panels along it’s wingspan to give it optimal power. It would be able to stay airborne for up to 3 months while still only using about the same amount of energy used to power 3 blow dryers. It would fly between 90,000-60,000 ft above ground providing internet service for a 50 mile radius. This would have brought the mighty power of the the internet to roughly 66% of the world with little to no service at all.
But, when the drone was shipped across the pond from Bridgewater, UK to Arizona, USA, things did not go as planned. On June 28, 2016 Aquila made her maiden US flight. It was a 96 minute flight that was going seemingly well, until it it suffered an internal malfunction just before it to crash. Engineers got to work and in less than a year they were ready for a second test flight. On May 22, 2017 the Aquila drone took the skies for a successful one hour and 46 minutes, along with a safe landing. But due to many factors the entire endeavor was scrapped in 2018.
However, Project Aquila was not the only drone program Facebook had been working on. Seeing some of the faults they were facing with Aquila a new project was developed in 2017 called Catalina. Rather than a massive, hard to control drone, the Catalina drone was designed to be about the size of a bird with fixed wings. In fact, it was inspired by (and named after) messenger pigeons that had been used to carry messages back and forth from Catalina Island to the main land off the coast of California.
These drone were also aimed at bringing internet access to areas of the world with limited access. Although, the access would not be as full as that provided by Aquila. Catalina drones would each be equipped with drives loaded with predetermined media. They would provide mobile device users with faster access to streaming data such as videos, or a Facebook feed. For some reason though, Facebook also stopped pursing the development of the Catalina drone in 2018.
Perhaps Facebook decided that providing world wide internet access via drones was not yet feasible. That doesn’t mean they have abandoned the idea of a drone that can bring isolated communities internet. They just aren’t going to be building the drones themselves. They have instead partnered with aerospace mega giant Airbus. While Airbus will design the drone, Facebook will help develop the the technologies needed to stream wireless connectivity.