The Aquila drone isn’t the only aerial internet project Facebook abandoned in the last year. The Tether-tenna, a small helicopter drone that could temporarily replace cellular service in emergency situations, was discontinued a few months after being shown off at the F8 developer conference in May of 2017, the company has confirmed to The Verge.
“Tether-tenna was a proof of concept project we were evaluating when we discussed it at F8 in early 2017,” a spokesperson for Facebook said. “It wasn’t something we pursued further as we chose to focus our efforts on continued development and advancement of our Terragraph, millimeter-wave, and HAPS [high altitude platform station] programs. We engage in a number of proof of concept initiatives like this one as they’re great learning vehicles for our connectivity teams.”
Yael Maguire, who runs Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, described the concept at F8 last year in front of a video of the Tether-tenna prototype that showed it take off, hover, and land. The idea was that the helicopter would be able to tether to fiber and power lines in places where cellular infrastructure was damaged, fly skyward, and broadcast a signal from hundreds of feet up in the air.
Facebook provided the antenna for Tether-tenna, but the helicopter drone that the company showed in the video at F8 was mostly built by a small startup called Everfly, which had been spun out of a research innovation firm called Otherlab, according to a Recode report from last year.
“What Facebook told you is correct, they did nothing more with [Tether-tenna] following what they showed at F8,” Mikell Taylor, who served as CEO of Everfly, said in a message to The Verge. “The group at Otherlab that worked on the FB project tried to spin out a startup focusing on commercializing that technology for more general telecommunications applications, but we couldn’t get any traction with funding and the team parted ways last summer.” Everfly disbanded later that summer.
Maguire said on the F8 stage that the hope with Tether-tenna was that it could provide “connectivity to people who most need it” for “months at a time,” and that the drone had already flown for 24 hours straight. But he also said that it was “in the early stages of development,” and that there were challenges — particularly because Tether-tenna was working with high voltage lines — that could get in the way.
Tether-tenna was a much smaller scale idea compared to Aquila, which involved ultra-light solar-powered drones that were bigger than a 737, and beamed internet to the ground using lasers. But backing away from both is a sign that, while Facebook still thinks aerial internet is worth exploration, the company doesn’t want to deal with the aerial hardware side of the equation.
When the death of the Aquila project was announced at the end of June, Maguire wrote in a blog post that Facebook instead wants to partner on high-altitude internet delivery systems going forward. This allows Facebook to focus on things it’s more familiar with, he wrote, like working with the government, dealing with policy matters, and solving problems more directly related to the connectivity being provided.