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Facebook looks to drones, satellites, lasers to deliver Internet access

  • APFILE - In this March 15
    AP
    FILE - In this March 15

SAN FRANCISCO » Watch out, Google. Facebook is gunning for the title of World’s Coolest Place to Work. And its arsenal includes unmanned drones, lasers, satellites and virtual reality headsets.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, announced Thursday that the company was creating a lab with as many as 50 aeronautics experts and space scientists to figure out how to beam Internet access from solar-powered drones and other "connectivity aircraft."

To start the effort, Facebook is buying Ascenta, a small British company whose founders helped to create early versions of an unmanned solar-powered drone, the Zephyr, which flew for two weeks in July 2010 and broke a world record for time aloft.

"We want to think about new ways of connectivity that dramatically reduce the cost," said Yael Maguire, engineering director for the newFacebook Connectivity Lab. "We want to explore whether there are ways from the sky to deliver the Internet access."

It’s the second head-spinning announcement from Facebook this week and the third this year. On Tuesday, the company said it would spend at least $2 billion to buy Oculus VR, a startup that is developing virtual reality headsets for playing games and other uses. Last month, it said it would buy WhatsApp, a messaging app, for as much as $19 billion.

The lab is part of Zuckerberg’s ambitious Internet.org project to bring the Web to the two-thirds of the world’s population without such access. Working with partners like Qualcomm and Nokia, Facebook is exploring technology to compress Internet data, cut the cost of mobile phones and extend connections to people who can’t afford them or live in places that are too difficult to reach.

That last part of the problem — reaching people in areas difficult to reach — is the lab’s initial focus, said Maguire.

Currently, satellites can deliver Internet to sparsely populated areas with spotty online connections, but the cost is high, said Maguire.

Facebook wants to know whether access could be delivered more cheaply through new types of satellites and unmanned aircraft.

The company envisions drones that could stay aloft for months, even years, more than 12 miles above the Earth’s surface — far above other planes and the ever-changing weather.

And to make the network more efficient, Maguire said, the planes would transmit data to each other using lasers before sending it back to Earth.

"You need to create an Internet in the sky," he said.

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