Facebook’s latest plan to help people get online is rather unusual: It involves an autonomous robot helicopter that is tethered to the ground, and specifically built to operate during times of crisis or natural disasters.
Think of it like a drone, only plugged into a power line. This means it can stay airborne for long periods — it has no battery to rely on — but can’t move very far.
Facebook unveiled the drone at the company’s annual F8 developer conference last month, but what we didn’t know at the time is that Facebook has a partner in this endeavor: Everfly, a five-person drone startup that spun out of Otherlab, a firm that houses early-stage hardware companies and funded research projects in San Francisco.
The CEO of Everfly is Mikell Taylor, who previously worked on autonomous underwater robots with Bluefin Robotics before her more recent focus on aerial robotics.
Everfly was also the team behind a disposable, small autonomous cardboard drone project funded by DARPA, the U.S. military’s experimental technology arm. Recode was the first to report on the disposable drone project in January.
Now the two are partners in Facebook’s latest connectivity endeavor, a concept the company is calling Tether-tenna, which is intended to bring reliable wireless to disaster areas. Those familiar with the relationship say that Everfly was responsible for building much of the first prototype. In fact, their name was on the drone that Facebook showed off at F8, and their engineers were there in person answering questions about the project.
Facebook, on the other hand, is providing the payload, the actual antenna that connects people to the internet.
We asked Everfly for comment and they referred us to Facebook. A Facebook spokesperson confirmed the partnership and shared this statement.
“Facebook engineers collaborated with Otherlab’s roboticists and aerodynamicists on an early proof-of-concept unit to create a platform that could handle the rigors of long endurance flight based on Facebook’s requirements for our Tether-tenna concept. Collaboration helps us increase the pace of innovation, and these types of partnerships continue to play a key role as Facebook iterates and develops next-generation technologies to connect communities when they need it most.”
The aircraft Facebook showed off at F8 is just a first prototype, and may evolve along with the company’s plans. But that version has a wingspan of nearly 14 feet — roughly the length of a Volkswagen Bug — and can be deployed quickly with an antenna system that broadcasts the internet for thousands of people nearby.
Despite its large wingspan, the drone itself only weighs about the mass of a small car tire, according to Yael Maguire, who runs Facebook’s Connectivity Lab. And since the drone-copter is tethered, the idea is that the drone can stay in the air for days or even weeks at a time without having to come down. Maguire said that in early tests the helicopter drone was able to stay in the air for 24 hours.
Most quadcopter drones, like DJI’s Phantom or the Karma from GoPro, can only fly for about 20 to 30 minutes before needing to land to swap batteries.
The hope is that in a disaster, if severe weather takes down cellphone towers and other infrastructure, the drone can be shot into the air to get people back online faster than it takes to repair a tower.
But it’s still not clear exactly how Facebook plans to use its new helicopter drone. Will it be shipped in for emergencies, or will there be drones already stationed in disaster-prone areas? We don’t know.
It’s also unclear whether Facebook and Everfly will work together on other projects down the line. But it seems possible.
Everfly and Facebook aren’t the only companies building tethered drones. Earlier this year, Massachusetts-based drone company CyPhy Works shared it has been working on a tethered Wi-Fi drone, as Recode reported.
This isn’t Facebook’s first time trying new drone technology, either. The social media company also has Aquila, its solar-powered drone project that’s supposed to beam internet from way up in the jet stream. That aircraft was seriously damaged after it crashed upon landing during a test flight last summer.
Watch Facebook’s Yael Maguire discuss the helicopter drone project at this year’s F8:
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.