[Avionics Today March 28, 2014] Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerburg said his company intends to develop a new method of delivering Internet connectivity to parts of the world that currently do not have access, by using Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).
As part of this effort, Facebook has acquired Ascenta for $20 million. The small U.K.-based aerospace engineering company created a prototype of the Zephyr, which holds the world record as the the longest-flying solar powered UAS after flying non-stop above an Arizona army range in 2010.
The process of providing connectivity via UAS is being developed as part of Facebook's Connectivity Lab, which is also looking to use satellites and lasers, in addition to aircraft, to deliver basic Internet services to the 5 billion people worldwide who currently lack it, Zuckerburg said.
"We've made good progress so far. Over the past year, our work in the Philippines and Paraguay alone has doubled the number of people using mobile data with the operators we've partnered with, helping 3 million new people access the Internet," Zuckerburg said in a Facebook post Thursday.
How would Facebook deliver Internet connectivity with UAS? According to Internet.org, the company is working on building "solar-powered high altitude, long endurance aircraft that can stay aloft for months," similar to the concept of Ascenta's Zephyr.
The company is also looking at Free-Space Optical communication (FSO), which is a process of using light to transmit data through space using invisible, infrared laser beams.
"FSO is a promising technology that potentially allows us to dramatically boost the speed of Internet connections provided by satellites and drones," according to a statement released by the Connectivity Lab.
The announcement by Facebook is just the latest commercial UAS application announced by a major technology company recently, as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos proclaimed back in December that his company could start delivering packages with small UAS within five years.
According to forecasts by aerospace and defense market analysts of the Teal Group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), and the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), the commercial UAS industry is projected to become a multi-billion dollar market as civil aviation authorities regulating UAS use continue to integrate unmanned aircraft into commercial airspace worldwide.
"It’s exciting to see more and more companies, from retailers to technology giants like Facebook, continue to realize the potential of Unmanned Aircraft Systems," said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of AUVSI.
"Whether it is delivering packages, surveying farms or providing Internet access, UAS can help businesses by saving time, saving money and, most importantly, saving lives. We’re excited to see a growing number of companies investing in the technology and developing innovative uses that will help to change industries and improve lives," Toscano added.