TECH

Facebook's Totally Not-Threatening-At-All Internet Drone Flies For The First Time

The company wants to bring free internet to everyone, but it's not the same web most of us access.

22/07/2016 5:10 AM AEST | Updated 22/07/2016 5:17 AM AEST
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Facebook's Aquila drone.

Facebook’s solar-powered Aquila drone, which the company intends to use to beam internet access to remote areas of the world, has completed its first successful flight.

A huge machine propelling itself through the sky, determining which people get internet access ― what could be weird about that?

The test flight occurred on June 28, according to The Verge, which received an exclusive interview with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to celebrate the occasion.

“We ended up flying the Aquila for more than 90 minutes ― three times longer than originally planned,” Jay Parikh, Facebook’s global head of engineering and infrastructure, wrote in a blog post announcing the news.

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The drone doesn't use much energy, so it can stay in flight for months at a time.
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An infographic about the Aquila provided by Facebook.

The Aquila travels under 80 miles an hour, conserving energy and allowing it to "stay aloft for months at a time.” Its wingspan is larger than a Boeing 737.

Facebook has long discussed using drones as part of its Internet.org service, which would provide connectivity to parts of the world that don’t have it. About 60 percent of the global population isn’t online.

Zuckerberg has described internet access as a human right.

“In every society, there are certain basic services that are so important for people’s wellbeing that we expect everyone to be able to access them freely,” Zuckerberg wrote in an op-ed last year.

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A map provided by Facebook shows the quality of internet connections around the world. Yellow is strong connectivity, blue is a bit weaker and red is considerably worse.

But experts aren’t so sure Facebook’s approach is correct. One of the ideas behind Internet.org is to provide a considerably slimmed down version of the internet called “Free Basics,” which allows people to access “news, employment, health, education and local information.”

By offering a customized internet, Facebook flouts the tenets of net neutrality, some warn. Writing for the Electronic Frontier Foundation last year, David Bogado and Katitza Rodriguez explained some of those problems:

Millions of people worldwide have no way to access the internet, and it is an urgent problem to solve in the near future. However, one of Internet.org’s proposals—the zero rating proposal—means that people with fewer economic resources will have free access only to certain portions of the internet. That portion will be decided between those large corporations that are part of Internet.org. To add to the confusion, the governments involved are promoting this segmentation of the Net as a public policy objective.

Internet.org users will be cut off from the “ocean” of the Internet that the rest of the world inhabits, where the whole internet is available for use without any discrimination or prioritization of certain applications.

In its article about the drone, The Verge gestured toward some of the questions Facebook will have to answer, asking, “Who builds the infrastructure? Who pays for the data? And then there’s the question that dogs all of the company’s connectivity initiatives: to what extent is Facebook providing internet access, and to what extent is it simply providing access to Facebook?” But it opted not to ask Zuckerberg to explain his stance on any of these issues.

As for why Facebook might care about getting more people online ― beyond offering “life-changing opportunities and experiences to all of us,” of course ― the company makes several billion dollars every quarter from online advertising. And that’s just on the 1.09 billion people who currently use Facebook every day.

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