Facebook is testing a small helicopter drone to bring the internet to disaster areas

Introducing the drone at F8.
Introducing the drone at F8.
Image: Facebook/Facebook for Developers
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Facebook is on a quest to bring the internet to the half of the world that doesn’t have it yet—presumably so that it can sign them all up for Facebook.

The company’s newest idea for bringing the internet to areas that are traditionally underserved takes the form of a small helicopter drone that Facebook briefly showed at its F8 developer conference in San Jose, California, today (April 19). The drone, which it’s calling the “Tether-tenna,” is just in the research phase at the moment, but could in theory help those in disaster situations. The idea is relatively simple: The drone is fitted with a tethered fiber-optic cable that can connect to a land-line internet connection and beam the internet out over radio waves to first-responders and whoever else might need access in a disaster.

Facebook's "Tether-tenna" drone
Facebook’s “Tether-tenna” drone
Image: Facebook

The drone is basically acting as a signal booster, in much the same way that a wifi range-extender works in a home, just on a much larger scale. In a blog post on Facebook’s connectivity research, the company said it could help ensure that a “local community can stay connected while the in-ground connectivity is under repair.”

The company’s previous connectivity efforts have included Free Basics, a program to offer very limited internet access to developing nations over cellular networks, and Aquila, a massive solar-powered drone that will beam the internet via lasers to those without access to other options. But Free Basics has faltered in larger developing nations, and Aquila is still in the very early stages of development—the drone crashed on landing in its first test flight last year in Arizona. Whether a small helicopter will fare any better is—unlike Aquila—still up in the air.