Facebook Reveals its Plan for Solar-Powered UAVs

 - March 28, 2014, 1:35 PM
Facebook provided this depiction of the solar-powered HALE UAS it plans to develop as a communications link. (Photo: Facebook)

Social media site Facebook has acquired a UK-based company whose founders helped develop the Zephyr, a solar-powered unmanned aircraft, as part of its “Connectivity Lab” project to more widely distribute Internet access.

Bloomberg and other media outlets reported on March 27 that Facebook paid $20 million to acquire Ascenta-Aerospace of Yoevil, Somerset, UK, the developer of a high-altitude long endurance (HALE) unmanned aircraft system (UAS). Facebook did not issue a press release specifically on the acquisition, but said that Ascenta’s five-member team had joined the Connectivity Lab project, which includes veterans of the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ames Research Center.

The Ascenta principals have held leadership positions within QinetiQ, Boeing, Honeywell and Harris, and worked on projects that include the Breitling Orbiter balloon and early versions of the Zephyr, Facebook said. In July 2010, the Zephyr set an endurance record for unmanned aircraft by staying aloft for 336 hours and 22 minutes.

Facebook is interested in developing solar-powered unmanned aircraft to serve as communications links in the stratosphere, flying at about 65,000 feet. Recent media reports said the company was in negotiations to acquire Titan Aerospace of Moriarty, N.M., developer of the Solara “atmospheric satellite,” another solar-powered HALE UAS. In a YouTube video, Facebook said it is pursuing “free space optics,” using lasers to distribute high capacity data streams “through the air and between platforms.”

“In our effort to connect the whole world with Internet.org, we've been working on ways to beam the Internet to people from the sky,” Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a blog post accompanying the Connectivity Lab announcement. “Today, we're sharing some details of the work Facebook’s Connectivity Lab is doing to build drones, satellites and lasers to deliver the Internet to everyone.”