There are an estimated five billion people without Internet access in the world. It’s possible that a fleet of Wi-Fi drones are what could reduce that number. At least that’s what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is hoping.

This March, the Facebook team announced these solar-powered drones, which they’ve named Aquila, at its F8 conference.

“The idea of this is to loiter across an area at very high altitude – 60,000 to 90,000 feet in the air – stand on station for months at a time and beam down backbone Internet access,” Facebook’s chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer said.

Aerial Wi-Fi For Everyone
The drones will utilize low-orbit satellites that transmit data through laser beams between the drones and antennas and beam signals down to communities.

The drones are reportedly the length of a Boeing 747, but weigh significantly less. They are reported to stay in the air for up to three months at a time. Facebook is working on partnering with mobile companies like Samsung to help distribute their Wi-Fi. If successful, the company might be the first to get a reliable means of delivering Wi-Fi off the ground in the next few years.

The World Needs Wi-Fi
To make access more widespread, the drones will enable Wi-Fi connection where building cable infrastructure on the ground is too costly or unfeasible. Wireless Internet access currently requires a cable tower, but many parts of Africa and Latin America lack these towers, so Facebook and other companies want to devise other ways to distribute Internet without them.

A Race to the Skies
The increased revenue wider access to the Internet would generate is a driving point for many companies, which is why Facebook has some competition. Quarkson, a Portuguese startup, began testing its own SkyOrbiter Wi-Fi drones, which they hope to show in Las Vegas on May 5.

Quarkson designed both low-altitude and high-altitude drones for commercial and government use. The low-altitude drones, which operate on fossil fuels, can reach 93,000 miles and last for seven weeks. The high-altitude commercial drone, the HA75, currently reaches 3 million miles and lasts five years.

Much like Facebook, Quarkson wants to distribute Wi-Fi and LTE on an unlicensed spectrum, while also offering both those and 3G and 2G transmissions through a carrier.

Both plans are similar to Google’s Project Loon, where the company plans to distribute Internet though the use of giant balloons. It remains to be seen which is the more viable option, but recent tests by Google indicate the balloons are only operational for about 100 days.

The spread of Wi-Fi access could, theoretically, lead to increased rates of education across the world and better communication. Not only that, but it might also make access to the Internet more accessible for those living in rural areas here in the U.S. The race to have the first commercially viable means of distributing Wi-Fi is on, and we should expect to see it hit the air within the next few years.

Photo Credit: David Rodriguez Martin/Flikr