Facebook abandons quest to build its own internet drones

Facebook announced today that it is no longer pursuing its plan of developing its own high-flying drones for delivering internet, an initiative within its Aquila project that was started four years ago. The news was tucked away in a blog post titled “High altitude connectivity: The next chapter,” penned by Yael Maguire, a director of engineering at Facebook.

Initially, Aquila was Facebook’s bold stratosphere internet project that imagined gigantic drones running partially on solar power that could remain in flight for long periods of time and beam down LTE service to remote parts of the world. In broad terms, Aquila was one of many ways, alongside Internet.org and other initiatives, that Facebook is trying to help the developing world and remote parts of Earth get online, so that they too can become Facebook users.

The Aquila project conducted two public, high-profile test flights of a prototype drone, the first of which in 2016 resulted in serious damage to the aircraft during its landing. Now, instead of building aircraft of its own, Facebook says it will now focus on working with partners on high-altitude internet delivery systems and on policy matters related to securing spectrum and establishing federal rules around the operation of such systems.

“As we’ve worked on these efforts, it’s been exciting to see leading companies in the aerospace industry start investing in this technology too — including the design and construction of new high-altitude aircraft,” Maguire writes. “Given these developments, we’ve decided not to design or build our own aircraft any longer, and to close our facility in Bridgwater.” Maguire is referring to a facility in Bridgewater, England that headed up the Aquila project, specifically the design and development of the prototype drone itself.

Facebook announced in November of last year that it was working with Airbus to develop better versions of what are known as high-altitude platform station, or HAPS, systems that can be built into aircraft for the purpose of beaming down high-speed internet. Maguire says the company is also “actively participating in a number of aviation advisory boards and rule-making committees in the US and internationally.”

Update 6/27, 7:28PM ET: Clarified that the Aquila project itself will continue with Facebook’s partners, and that the company is abandoning just the goal of designing and building its own drones in-house. The headline has been updated to reflect this fact.