SAN FRANCISCO — Watch out, Google. Facebook is gunning for the title of World’s Coolest Place to Work. And its arsenal includes unmanned drones, lasers, satellites and virtual reality headsets.
Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and chief executive of Facebook, announced on Thursday that the company was creating a new lab of up to 50 aeronautics experts and space scientists to figure out how to beam Internet access down from solar-powered drones and other “connectivity aircraft.”
To start the effort, Facebook is buying Ascenta, a small British company whose founders helped to create early versions of an unmanned solar-powered drone, the Zephyr, which flew for two weeks in July 2010 and broke a world record for time aloft.
“We want to think about new ways of connectivity that dramatically reduce the cost,” said Yael Maguire, engineering director for the new Facebook Connectivity Lab. “We want to explore whether there are ways from the sky to deliver the Internet access.”
It’s the second head-spinning announcement from Facebook this week and the third this year. On Tuesday, the company said it would spend at least $2 billion to buy Oculus VR, a Southern California start-up that is developing virtual reality headsets for playing games and other uses. Last month, it said it would buy WhatsApp, a messaging app that offers free texting around the world, for as much as $19 billion.
The lab is part of Mr. Zuckerberg’s ambitious Internet.org project to bring the Internet to the two-thirds of the world’s population without Internet access. Working with partners like Qualcomm and Nokia, Facebook is working on technology to compress Internet data, cut the cost of mobile phones and extend connections to people who can’t afford them or live in places that are too difficult to reach.
That last part of the problem — reaching the 10 percent of the world’s population that are in areas difficult to reach via traditional Internet solutions — is the initial focus of the connectivity lab, said Mr. Maguire.
Currently, satellites can deliver Internet to sparsely populated areas with spotty Internet connections, but the cost is very high, said Mr. Maguire.
Facebook wants to explore whether access could be delivered more cheaply both through both new types of satellites and unmanned aircraft.
The company envisions drones that could stay aloft for months, even years, at a time at an altitude of more than 12 miles from the surface of the earth — far above other planes and the ever-changing weather.
And to make the network more efficient, Mr. Maguire said, the planes would transmit data to each other using lasers before finally sending it back down to the earth.
“You need to create an Internet in the sky,” he said.
Mr. Maguire acknowledged that the whole thing sounds a bit pie in the sky. “We want to pursue a lot of directions — some risky that might not work,” he said.
But the end goal of connecting the world to the Internet is important to Facebook and the company is determined to get there, he said.
Matthew Eastwood, an analyst with IDC, a technology research firm, said Facebook was trying to serve a population that no telecommunications provider had ever made money from. “You have to give them credit for thinking the way the telcos don’t.”
Facebook’s recent initiatives immediately bring to mind similar pie-in-the-sky efforts by its much bigger Silicon Valley rival, Google.
Google has its own head-mounted computing project, called Glass. It’s trying to bring the Internet to the middle of nowhere through a network of high-flying balloons. The company has also developed self-driving cars, aggressively acquired robotics companies and has dabbled in an array of science projects that wouldn’t seem to relate to its core, ad-driven business.
“The more I think about it — drones and virtual reality and the excessive amount of money they’re paying for WhatsApp — they’re making these decisions in lieu of having a solid business practice in place,” said Brian Blau, an analyst at the research firm Gartner. “Sometimes I get the feeling that Facebook is really just trying to keep up with the Joneses.”
Or perhaps the Googles.
Mr. Maguire, star of a recruiting video posted on Internet.org, played down the idea. He said he was not even trying to poach anyone from Google as he looked to add about 40 more rocket scientists, plane designers and laser communications wizards to his team.
“You’re not going to find that expertise in the traditional Internet-based communities,” he said. “We think the talent comes from elsewhere.”