Facebook ends ambitious Aquila program, will pursue partnerships instead

Facebook is getting out of the drone-building business, shuttering its facility in Bridgwater, U.K., and focusing on partnerships instead.

The project being shut down, Aquila, was envisioned as a fleet of solar-powered aircraft for connecting people in remote parts of the world where buried optical fiber or microwave links on towers are cost-prohibitive. Once fully operational, the high-altitude planes were supposed to stay airborne for up to 90 days at a time and beam broadband coverage to a 60-mile-wide area on the ground.

The social networking giant isn’t abandoning the space altogether, but discovered that since it started the Aquila program in 2014, more companies have gotten involved in this area, including leading companies in the aerospace industry that started investing in the technology.  

“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,” said Yael Maguire, VP of connectivity at Facebook, in a blog post.

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Other endeavors to reach the underconnected have fared better. The Alphabet X entity known as Project Loon (formerly Google's) has seen some success, delivering basic internet service to more than 100,000 people in Puerto Rico last year.

On the policy front, Facebook said it will be working on a proposal for the 2019 World Radio Conference to get more spectrum for high altitude platform station (HAPS) systems, and it plans to still be active in a number of aviation advisory boards and rule-making committees in the U.S. and internationally. The company previously pushed for changes in spectrum and aviation policy, including more consistency in the global regulatory environment to open up HAPS to new entrants.

Facebook’s revelation about Aquila came after Business Insider reported on upheaval at the project, including the departure of its leader and a planned redesign. The publication said the project had lost its long-time head, Andrew Cox, in May. Cox had been the head of the U.K. unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) company that Facebook acquired in 2014 for nearly $20 million. 

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The Facebook-led Telecom Infra Project (TIP) is seeing more promise, as that endeavor has attracted a growing ecosystem of operators and other partners. Facebook launched TIP in 2016, with the goal of bringing connectivity to unserved and underserved markets through the development of software-powered telecom infrastructure. The project has seen widespread traction among telecom players in the past two years and counts 500 companies in its membership.

Facebook also has chronicled breakthroughs in millimeter wave technology, including with a San Jose test bed using the 60 GHz band, where oxygen absorption proved challenging for communications.

Maguire told FierceWirelessTech earlier this year that his team felt confident that oxygen was not an issue in the 60 GHz and they were eager to learn more about propagation characteristics and behaviors in other environments around the world in various deployments, including through a planned Deutsche Telekom field trial in the Budapest area.