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How realistic is Facebook's plan to use drones for internet connectivity?

Facebook's Internet.org initiative joins Google's Project Loon in the difficult race to provide airborne internet to under-served areas.

It's been a little while since we've heard from Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, which company CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in August. The news appears to be worth the wait, involving a rig of drones and lasers that will provide internet to those without access.

In a brief post published on his Facebook yesterday, Zuckerberg discussed launching solar-powered drones to distribute wireless internet access to under-served areas. In order to do so, Facebook acquired aerospace technology company Ascenta, makers of the world’s longest-flying, solar-powered, unmanned aircraft, Zuckerberg announced in the post. Although Ascenta consists of just five people, these people list Boeing, Honeywell, and QinetiQ on their resumes, so it was no small acquisition.

In suburban locales, the plan involves sending drones 20,000 meters above the ground to continually and connecting with each other via a system of lasers. Internet.org went into further detail in a video.

The video does say what we’re all thinking – "we're just at the beginning."

However ambitious the plan is, it does suggest a solution to the integral problem preventing internet service providers from moving into underdeveloped markets – it’s just not worth the investment for the providers. As is explained in the video, distribution towers are a massive undertaking, and satellite is too unreliable. And as we’ve seen recently, ISPs often decline to serve areas in the U.S. when they don’t see the right numbers.

The project has also elicited comparisons to Google’s Project Loon, which takes a similar approach except with balloons distributing Wi-Fi signals from the stratosphere. Now that both Facebook and Google have captured most of the internet-connected world, it only makes sense for them to create new markets by connecting the rest of it.

Internet.org’s announcement doesn't really come as a surprise to many either, as reports earlier this month claimed Facebook was planning to acquire drone maker Titan Aerospace for this same purpose. It’s unclear whether that acquisition will happen, but with the acquisition of Ascenta, it might not have to.

The question remains - how realistic is an aerial plan to bring internet connectivity? Shortly after Google launched Project Loon, several of the balloons ended up crashing into the ocean, resulting in criticism both of Google's environmental footprint and how realistic such a plan was. Even Bill Gates publicly questioned what Google was thinking with the project.

Internet.org's unmanned drones, by contrast, are solar-powered and likely easier to control than a large balloon launched into space.

Regardless of whether Facebook's new drones are safer, they still face just as big a challenge - regulations. Drone regulation remains a confusing and hotly debated issue. Some drone operators, including Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals, are being faced with fines by the Federal Aviation Administration for violating regulations they didn't even know existed. Add to that the vitriol with which some communities view drones, including the small Colorado town selling its residents permits to shoot drones mid-flight for just $25, and you have a recipe for a difficult project.

Of course, Facebook's drones will fly high enough to be unobtrusive, and out of the range of hunters' shotguns. But the project's success relies largely on how the technology is received by the people it intends to serve.

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