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Facebook built a helicopter-drone to provide wireless internet to disaster areas

The unmanned chopper will be tethered to the ground so it can stay airborne for days at a time.

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This is not a picture of Facebook’s helicopter-drone.
Jordan Mansfield / Getty

Facebook thinks it can do more to help in times of crisis.

The social giant already offers a feature called Safety Check, which lets users mark themselves safe during a crisis or connect with other users who might have food, clothing or shelter on hand during a natural disaster.

But Facebook doesn’t just want to connect people to each other during these disasters — it wants to connect people to the internet, too.

The company announced on Wednesday what it’s calling “Tether-tenna technology,” essentially a small, unmanned helicopter that will provide Wi-Fi access to crisis zones when existing Wi-Fi towers are down or damaged.

The helicopter-drone, which is roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, is literally tethered to a fiber line and a power source on the ground, which enables the chopper to stay airborne for days at a time. (Facebook says its goal is to keep it up for weeks or months.)

The Tether-tenna technology is still in early testing, which means it isn’t being deployed to actual disaster areas just yet, said Yael Maguire, head of Facebook’s connectivity lab, in an interview with Recode.

Maguire — whose team also built Facebook’s internet-beaming drone, Aquila, and is laying hundreds of miles of fiber cable in Africa to increase access to the internet there — estimates that one helicopter could connect “in the neighborhood of thousands to tens of thousands of people.” The Aquila drone hasn’t been deployed yet either; the aircraft was damaged after it crashed upon landing during a test flight last summer.

There are still some unanswered questions about Tether-tenna, like how widespread the wireless connection will be or how the choppers will get to the scene in a crisis.

Facebook is not the only company taking this tethered approach. CyPhy Works, a Massachusetts-based drone maker, is also working on a tethered Wi-Fi drone.

Facebook will demo the Tether-tenna technology at its annual F8 conference on Wednesday in San Jose, Calif. We haven’t seen it just yet but will update with observations once we do.


This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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