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- Facebook explored building bird-size drones to shuttle data for people in areas with slow internet connections.
- "Catalina" was a secret internal project in Facebook’s Connectivity unit, the company’s efforts to get people around the world online — and on Facebook.
- The tiny fixed-wing drones would be fitted with solid-state storage devices capable of storing data-intensive media like videos and photos.
- A Facebook representative said the project was ended a year ago.
Facebook recently explored building bird-size drones loaded with data to help improve people’s internet connections.
The Menlo Park, California-headquartered technology giant worked on a far-out project, called Catalina, in recent years that aimed to build tiny fixed-wing aircraft capable of ferrying media to communities to augment slow internet connections like 2G, Business Insider has learned.
The efforts illustrate how Facebook has been exploring out-of-the-box concepts in its attempts to connect people around the world to the internet for the first time and grow Facebook’s user base. And it shows that even amid Facebook’s public retreat in June from building 747-size "Aquila" drones to provide internet connectivity to emerging markets, the company was also considering other, even less conventional aerial methods of providing connectivity solutions.
Development of Catalina began in late 2017 or earlier, a source said, and work on it continued past June, meaning that even after Facebook announced it was shutting down the Aquila project — which Business Insider had reported was experiencing upheaval — the company was still exploring the potential of using drones in other forms.
A Facebook representative said the Catalina project was ended a year ago. It’s not clear exactly when it was discontinued.
The social network’s immense scale means it has effectively saturated established markets like the United States and the United Kingdom. It has historically been laser-focused on growth — and achieving that goal now increasingly means ambitious hardware projects to introduce the internet to people for the first time in emerging markets. That is where Facebook Connectivity comes in.
Today, the unit has several projects including its controversial Free Basics program that provides free data and limited internet services to people; high-altitude connectivity, which Aquila was part of and Facebook continues to invest in with third-party partners; and OpenCellular, which builds cheap base-station tech to expand mobile networks.
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The Catalina project was named after Santa Catalina Island, a California island off the coast of Los Angeles that in the latter half of the 19th century used pigeons to deliver messages to the mainland and back.
The 21st-century Catalina would work in much the same way — only using mini-drone messengers instead of flesh-and-blood avians, and carrying digital payloads instead of handwritten notes.
The vision was to build a fleet of bird-size fixed-wing drones with high-density solid-state storage drives on board, that could then be used to ferry data. These drones would be significantly smaller than most traditional, off-the-shelf drones — one source said they were closer in size to a sparrow than an eagle.
This could provide a way for people in areas with low-bandwidth internet connections to consume data-intensive content like video streaming without needing to build expensive new permanent telecoms infrastructure. For less data-hungry tasks, like texting and phone calls, people would use their existing networks.
Facebook had planned to first test it with content for its core apps like Messenger and to eventually expand the airborne service to third-party apps like YouTube and Netflix — an indication as to how Facebook’s Connectivity efforts act as a vehicle to drive user growth and engagement on Facebook as much as to improve access to other internet services.
The name of this drone-powered pseudo-internet? The "pigeonet."
Not all of Facebook’s experimental connectivity efforts to get people to join Facebook have been so high-tech, however.
From 2015 to 2017, the company ran a program internally referred to as Street Feet in some emerging-market countries (Bangladesh and Tanzania, a source said). Facebook paid locals in the countries to directly approach random people in the street and try to persuade them to sign up for the social network.
Additional reporting by Steven Tweedie.
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