Facebook is scrapping its efforts to build its passenger jet-sized drones that provide wireless internet to the developing world, and laying off staff, it announced on Tuesday— a major retreat from what had been an ambitious and high-profile initiative at the company.
Those drones were being built by Facebook’s Aquila project, a highly-publicized part of its ongoing global connectivity efforts. Now, rather than building so-called HAPS (High Altitude Platform Stations), like the Aquila drone in-house, Facebook will focus on developing the underlying technologies.
„We’ve decided now is the right moment to focus on the next set of engineering and regulatory challenges for HAPS connectivity,” Facebook’s Yael Maguire wrote in a blog post. „This means we will no longer design and build our own aircraft, and, as a result, we’ve closed our facility in Bridgewater.”
Business Insider understands that 16 staff have been laid off as a result of this move.
Facebook’s announcement comes after Business Insider reported earlier on Tuesday about upheaval at the Aquila project. It lost its long-time head, Andrew Cox, in May, and had been briefing partners about a potential redesign of its drones last year.
The vision behind Aquila was to provide wireless internet via aircraft to the parts of the world without traditional connectivity infrastructure, and Facebook says it isn’t abandoning these efforts entirely. It will now focus on building specific components like batteries and control computers for other aerial vehicles, though it will no longer build these aircraft itself.
Facebook’s announcement is a step back from the company from what had been an extremely ambitious, but troubled, project. The first publicized test flight landed Facebook at the centre of a media firestorm after it failed to disclose to the public that it had crashed upon landing. A second test flight, while more successful, still caused damage to the aircraft upon landing, and the propellers failed to function properly.
Internal emails obtained by Business Insider indicate that in 2017 the company considered a redesign of the unmanned aerial vehicle before making the decision to scrap it entirely, but it evidently wasn’t enough to save the project.
Those emails also revealed that Facebook explored the possibility of building a drone base at a futuristic spaceport in the New Mexico desert, but ultimately abandoned these efforts amid discussion of the potential redesign.
In 2014, Facebook acquired a UAV company based in Bridgewater, England for nearly $20 million, with its head — Andrew Cox — becoming the founder and leader of the Aquila project. But the decision to move away from building vehicles means Facebook is closing the Bridgewater facility where the drones were being developed.
„While our focus in HAPS connectivity has shifted, we remain as committed as ever to addressing the three main barriers to connectivity: availability, affordability, and awareness,” Maguire wrote on Tuesday.
„We’ve already connected nearly 100 million people via our efforts, and we are continuing to invest in developing a variety of next-generation technologies and programs — ranging from programs like Express Wi-Fi to new technologies like Terragraph — that can help connect the almost four billion people in the world who still do not have access to the internet.”
In November 2017, Facebook also said it was working with Airbus on HAPSs. Now it no longer has its own aircraft to fly, these partnerships will be critically important.
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