By operating its own fleet of drones in the stratosphere, Facebook wants to bring wireless internet to remote parts of the world. The social media giant even hopes to expand beyond its current base of 2.2 billion monthly active users. It therefore came as as suprise when Facebook announced the suspension of its drone-building program Aquila in June. Contrary to some reports, the data company has not abandoned its ambitious plans for high-altitude connectivity. As a newly available document shows, Facebook and Airbus are jointly lobbying the European Commission in Brussels on the subject of drones.
Facebook said it would cooperate with Airbus on high altitude connectivity in late 2017, but did not give any details. Ever since, the two companies have lobbied for shared policy goals and could possibly enter an even closer business relationship soon. In April this year, Facebook and Airbus had a high-level meeting with a European Commission official, as the document released recently under FOI laws on request of lobby watchgroup Corporate Europe Observatory shows. According to the email, representatives of Facebook and Airbus met with Matthew Baldwin, Vice Director of the Directorate-General for Transport and Mobility.
A drone named Zephyr
The email mentions the Airbus Zephyr drone. „The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the state of play of the project and to see how it is covered by the global (EU) regulatory framework“, states the email, which was sent to several Commission officials. A spokesman for the European Commission, responding to our request, said that no such high-level meeting had taken place since then, but that there was „regular exchanges in order to keep track of technological developments“. (We did a new FOI request for more information.)
Flight tests in Western Australia
When approached by netzpolitik.org, Airbus and Facebook refused to comment on the specifics of the Brussels meeting and their common plans. And yet, their joint effort seems to indicate a possible deal over Zephyr drones by the two companies. A German Facebook spokesperson provided a hint in an email sent to us last week. „We can confirm that Facebook and Airbus team members are currently working in Western Australia as part of our ongoing collaboration“, the spokesperson wrote. Airbus is testing Zepyhr drones at Wyndham Airport in Western Australia.
A few hours later, the Facebook spokesman emailed a revised statement from which the sentence on Western Australia was missing. An Airbus spokesperson declined to give a reply when asked whether the company plans to sell Zephyr drones to Facebook. The purchase of Zephyr drones would give Facebook access to high-tech equipment developed for military buyers.
„These are two of the companies with the biggest lobbying presence in Brussels joining forces, with possible implications for everything from data protection to military surveillance“, observed Margarida Silva, a researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory. Last year, Facebook spent at least 2,25 million euro and Airbus at least 1,5 million euro on Brussels lobbying, according to the EU’s Transparency Register. Silva says that, whatever the common objective of Airbus and Facebook, they and the Commission should be transparent about the process. „The public should know what the lobbying is about.“
Military-grade high tech
A Zephyr S-type drone was bought by the British military in 2016 and is used for reconnaissance missions. The drone „will be capable of gathering constant, reliable information over vast geographical areas at a much greater level of detail than ever before,“ the UK Department of Defense said in a press release announcing the purchase.
The solar-powered Zephyr-S drone has a wingspan of 25 metres and can climb well over 20,000 metres above the earth into the stratosphere, Airbus states in documentation on its website. During a test flight this summer, the drone remained in the air for 25 days. Airbus is currently working on the larger Zephyr Model T drone with a wingspan of 33 metres. The manufacturer’s specifications state that the new model can be equipped with radar and lidar technology as well as broadband systems, but also with ESM/ELINT meant for electronic espionage and warfare.