At its F8 developers conference today, Facebook offered a first look at a solar-powered drone capable of beaming internet access to remote areas around the globe.
Built by Ascenta, the solar-powered drone developer Facebook acquired last year for $20 million, the drone is huge. It has a wingspan larger than that of a Boeing 737 (about 95 feet), and weighs as much as a small car. It is designed to fly at altitudes of 60,000 to 90,000 feet, and to stay in the air for months at a time. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said today that the company successfully completed its first test flight of the aircraft in the United Kingdom.
It's a promising start for a program that hopes to extend Internet access to low-density, rural markets without the significant on-the-ground work and financial investment associated with underground cabling and the like. Facebook estimates that drones like the one it showed off today could someday allow up 10% of the world's population to access the internet affordably.
The development of this drone is part of Facebook's internet.org initiative to spur global connectivity. The project is not-for-profit, but not entirely altruistic either. Facebook clearly wants the whole world on its service, and getting more people online as fast as possible is the name of the game. Competitors like Google are experimenting with similar projects.