At its F8 Developer Conference, Facebook today unveiled what it has dubbed the “Tether-tenna”. It’s a helicopter that is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, tethered to a line of fiber and electricity. Since electricity from the tether powers the helicopter, it can stay in the air for weeks, if not months at a time.
The idea is to fly this helicopter-drone hundreds of feet in the air, where it can broadcast a signal to restore cellular or WiFi connectivity in an area. It’s essentially a mast for an antenna, except it can be deployed instantly.
That’s what’s important; Facebook wants to use this technology to restore internet connectivity in disaster-struck areas. If the fiber and electricity lines are still operational and accessible, these drones can help restore connectivity in an area, while the traditional infrastructure redevelops at its own pace.
In a blog post, the head of Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, Yael Maguire, made it clear that the technology isn’t ready for prime-time yet:
This is still in the early stages of development and lots of work is needed to ensure that it will be able operate autonomously for months at a time, but we're excited about the progress so far.
On stage at the conference, Maguire also stated that the helicopter has not yet operated for more than 24 hours continuously. The team is yet to solve some extremely challenging problems like high winds, lightning, and other safety issues.
Facebook has been trying to expand the sphere of internet connectivity over the past few years. It started developing a solar-powered drone in 2014 and managed to get it up in the air by 2016. It didn’t take long for the drone to crash, but failures are a part of success. After all, discovery requires experimentation.
It's an ongoing effort for the company, and while it benefits everyone involved, it also helps increase the number of potential new users for the social platform.