Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg with a drone (of a much smaller type than planned for the Aquila project) at the F8 Facebook Developer Conference in San Francisco in 2016.Photo: AP
Facebook has abandoned a key portion of its Aquila project, an effort to build solar-powered, passenger jet-sized drones that would wirelessly connect parts of the developing world to the internet.
According to Business Insider, Facebook's Director of Engineering Yael Maguire wrote that the company will focus on the "underlying technologies" behind Aquila instead of designing its own aircraft for use in the initiative, and has laid off at least 16 staff involved:
Those drones were being built by Facebook's Aquila project, a highly-publicized part of its ongoing global connectivity efforts. Now, rather than building so-called HAPS (High Altitude Platform Stations), like the Aquila drone in-house, Facebook will focus on developing the underlying technologies.
"We've decided now is the right moment to focus on the next set of engineering and regulatory challenges for HAPS connectivity," Facebook's Yael Maguire wrote in a blog post. "This means we will no longer design and build our own aircraft, and, as a result, we've closed our facility in Bridgewater."
— The Times of London (@thetimes) June 30, 2017
Aquila was previously reported by Business Insider to have been experiencing significant internal turmoil including the departure of key engineer Andrew Cox, the apparent abandonment of plans to use a next-generation landing system involving kevlar landing pads instead of traditional runways, and a scrapped idea to build a drone base at a New Mexico spaceport. (The first of two publicly known tests of the advanced landing system ended in severe damage to the aircraft, while the second was more successful but still resulted in damage, according to Business Insider.)
As noted by the Verge, Facebook plans on continuing with Aquila by partnering with other companies like Airbus, just not building its own drones for use in the project. In the blog post, Maguire wrote that its engineering initiatives will instead focus on improving the connectivity gear that could eventually be loaded onto the aircraft involved as well as components like "flight control computers and high-density batteries." Maguire added that it would also be pursuing policy initiatives such "a proposal for 2019 World Radio Conference to get more spectrum for HAPS" and approval from regulators.
Per TechCrunch, critics have questioned whether the Aquila project was thought up in an era where Facebook's ascendancy had not yet hit significant roadblocks and whether less grandiose plans like "laying fibre or establishing basic infrastructure" were more realistic and could reach more customers.
Aquila was also created as part of Facebook's Internet.org initiative, which earlier this year Facebook said had connected some 100 million people to the internet — or rather, a heavily restricted, walled-garden version of the internet controlled by Facebook. Internet.org hubs allow users to connect to the internet via the Free Basics app, which the Guardian reported mostly limits users to Western web destinations without extra charges.
While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has argued some internet access is better than none, the Guardian wrote, without paying additional fees through Free Basics "There are no other social networking sites apart from Facebook and no email provider."
As Business Insider noted, with the death of its plan to build its own aircraft, the company's partnerships with aerospace companies like Airbus "will be critically important."