Mark Zuckerberg announced last night that Facebook has brought on “key members” of the staff of Ascenta, a small company based in southwestern England, to develop high-altitude solar-powered drones that could help supply internet access to remote areas. The value of the deal—which didn’t involve acquiring the firm, but made at least some of its team Facebook employees—was under $20 million. That’s a substantially lower price tag than the $60 million being bandied about earlier this month when TechCrunch reported that Facebook was in talks to buy Titan Aerospace, a maker of similar drones.
In the video above put out by internet.org, a Facebook-backed non-profit that pushes internet adoption, Yael Maguire, a director of engineering at Facebook, lays out the plan. In remote places with a low population dispersed over wide areas, Facebook will beam down internet connectivity from low-earth orbit satellites passing overhead—”an internet backbone that’s essentially flying through the air,” he says. In denser locations, such as towns, villages and suburbs, it makes more sense to station a high-altitude solar-powered planes circling overhead for months at a time.
The technology for solar-powered high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) drones is young but promising. They fly 65,000 feet (20km) above the earth’s surface, far above jetliners and the weather. They serve the same function as satellites, but they’re cheaper and fly much lower. While the likes of Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk drone can achieve heights of 60,000 feet, it can only stay aloft for 32 hours at a time. By contrast, the Zephyr, developed by British defence firm QinetiQ, is solar-powered and can—in theory—stay in the sky indefinitely. In 2010, it smashed the world record for the longest-ever flight, hovering over the earth for more than two weeks.
For Facebook, the attraction of Ascenta, which describes itself as “an unusual company with an unusual background,” lies in its people more than its technology. The firm’s founder and staff have a great deal of experience in the area, having worked on the Zephyr, among other projects at other firms. Though there are few public records available about the small, privately-held company, the FT reports (paywall) that its founder, Andrew Cox, has a long record in the defence industry. Ken Platt, who runs product development, was previously in telecommunications, according to his LinkedIn profile. Nigel Gifford, listed online as the company’s UK press contact, also has a background in the army and in expeditions to far-off remote places. (When contacted, Gifford directed Quartz to Facebook’s press office. Facebook declined to comment.)
Ascenta released its first drone at the Special Operations Focus Industry Conference in Florida in April last year. At the time, the firm went by the catchy name of “High Altitude Design Ltd” and Ascenta was the name of its aircraft, which has the ability to ”loiter in the stratosphere above a target area for up to three months, sending back intelligence data to a ground station control system for analysis.”
Though Facebook says it will use the drones to provide internet access, Ascenta’s systems were ”designed for survey and real-time monitoring of detected signals or targeted information,” and they “can be launched and recovered from a small footprint and [are] ideal for border surveillance, anti-poaching, communications intercept or private comms.”