Facebook has for years explored ways to help improve mobile connectivity and bring more of the population in developed countries get online, ostensibly a humanitarian effort but more of a thinly veiled ploy to bring more people into its app ecosystem. That effort’s most visible projects have been Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, with its Free Basics and Express Wi-Fi offerings for fast-growing smartphone markets, and the discontinued Aquila project, which sought to fly large, solar-powered drones that could beam down internet much like Alphabet’s high-flying Loon helium balloons.
But Facebook was working on another method in secret that involved much smaller, bird-sized fixed-wing aircraft that could be used to boost smartphone data speeds, according to a report today from Business Insider. The project, codenamed “Catalina” after an island off the Southern California coast notable for once using a carrier pigeon network, was discontinued about a year ago, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed to BI. But its existence illustrates that Facebook was looking at connectivity through a variety of lenses.
BI reports that the drones would be closer to the size of a sparrow, making them almost pocket-sized. The goal would not be to beam down a functioning internet connection to completely remote areas, but instead to augment existing, 2G-level connections to allow smartphone users to stream video and perform other more data-intensive tasks. It’s not clear how exactly that would have worked. The report describes the drones as designed to carry “high-density solid state drives... that could then be used to ferry data,” so perhaps the drones would act as a mesh network of sorts between a grounded connection and a user’s smartphone to facilitate high-bandwidth data transfers.
Regardless, it seems that Facebook moved away from that idea just as it abandoned the Aquila concept. The company isn’t totally out of the connectivity game, though. It still has Internet.org, despite the setbacks that organization has faced in India. And when the Aquila news broke in June 2018, Facebook said it was still working with Airbus to develop better versions of what are known as high-altitude platform stations, or HAPS, that can be built into aircraft for the purpose of beaming down high-speed internet from low Earth orbit. At the time, the company also said it was “actively participating in a number of aviation advisory boards and rule-making committees in the US and internationally.”