While its main business is invasive tracking programs for the purpose of better targeting ads at its users, Facebook has also been sinking money into more ambitious initiatives, most notably the Aquila drone program, which theoretically involved solar-powered drones that would stay in the air for months at a time, serving as an internet access point in regions that lack the physical infrastructure. At F8 in 2016, Mark Zuckerberg held up a drone part onstage to demonstrate how light it was.
Now, the program is dead. Buried deep in a post on Facebook’s plan for the future of “high altitude connectivity,” the company announced that “we’ve decided not to design or build our own aircraft any longer, and to close our facility in Bridgwater [in England].” Instead, the company will rely on other manufacturers to make the aircraft and focus more on policy initiatives to bring the tech to the people.
The project was intriguing, and not without its controversies. While Aquila had a few successful test flights, Facebook also encountered, as is typical of the company, transparency issues. A June 28, 2016, flight resulted in a crash landing, but Facebook went ahead and served the story to the press as an unmitigated success anyway.
The Aquila initiative was run under Facebook’s philanthropic Internet.org, an organization whose stated purpose was to bring internet access to developing countries, and whose widely assumed purpose was a more nefarious initiative to gain users and get them hooked into the Facebook ecosystem early. When Facebook is your internet provider, it can exercise even greater control over what you can access.