LONDON -- Facebook is a huge company. Just look at the numbers: 1.5 billion people around the world log on to its social network every month; 900 million people regularly send messages on WhatsApp; 700 million people use Messenger; and 400 million people use its photo-sharing service Instagram.

With that kind of reach, it might not come as a surprise that Facebook wants to connect the entire world.

That is the vision laid out by Facebook’s top engineer, Jay Parikh, who is charged not only with delivering the groundbreaking technologies that will allow all of the people on the planet to get connected but also with making sure Facebook’s servers remain online 24/7.

“[Facebook] really is a technology company with this mission to connect everyone and a social networking service that rides on top of this technology,” Parikh told International Business Times.

Part of that technology is seen in the company’s data centers, and the sheer scale of these buildings is mind-boggling. The company’s data center in Luleå, Sweden, is as large as four soccer fields, 11 Boeing 737 jumbo jets or, put another way, it's as long as the Empire State Building laid on its side.

'We Don't Have Patience For That'

These data centers don’t deal in megabytes, gigabytes, terabytes or even petabytes, but in exabytes of storage. (An exabyte is a unit of information equal to one quintillion, or 10 to the 18th power, bytes, or 1 billion gigabytes.) To put it another way, five exabytes would be needed to store all words ever spoken by human beings. But the scale and volume is not the most interesting aspect of the buildings; it's the technology inside them, which is 100 percent unique to Facebook.

Facebook's Altoona Data Center Facebook's Altoona data center in Iowa is one of more than a dozen around the world that all use Facebook's own technology. Photo: Facebook

The company has refined and redesigned every aspect of its data centers down to the networking equipment and power supplies to allow them be efficient, fast and more economical. Parikh says he and his team do the work themselves because the industry moves too slowly. “We don’t want to be stuck behind the traditional OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], the traditional companies that move at what I think are glacial speeds of innovation. We don’t have time, we don’t have patience for that at this point.”

Facebook is not keeping all of this proprietary technology to itself and has opened up the design and engineering details of its innovations and created the Open Compute Project, which sees up to 200 companies -- including Apple, Cisco, HP and Intel -- collaborate on these innovations. “We believe in open, and open is going to bring together a community of people, and that [will allow] innovation and R&D to happen faster if we can bring together all of the smart people that are passionate about a particular topic,” Parikh said.

Connecting The World

The investment Facebook has made in research and development and the technological breakthroughs it has achieved are not aimed at allowing you to "like" a picture of a cat a few milliseconds quicker or get more filters on Instagram; they are focused on much loftier goals. “Everything we have learned over the last 11 years of the company’s history sets us up very well to do the big stuff that we need to do next,” Parikh says.

What’s next is trying to connect the parts of the world that are not connected to the Internet -- and therefore not on Facebook -- while reducing the costs of doing so by an order of magnitude. To do this, Facebook is going to use drones and lasers. Of course these are not any drones or lasers, but ones that have the potential to revolutionize the way we connect to the Internet.

Aquila Drone Facebook's Aquila drone is "basically a big flying wing" which will fly at altitudes of up to 90,000 feet for three months at a time. Photo: Facebook

Facebook pulled the covers back on its solar-powered Aquila drone at the end of July, and Parikh told IBT that the drone, which was built by British company Ascenta, has since been broken down and is now on a ship heading towards its test site -- though he wouldn’t reveal what country that is in or even which continent, adding simply: "It is somewhere on the planet Earth." 

The drone, which has a wingspan greater than a Boeing 737 but is one third the weight of a Toyota Prius, will be able to fly at heights of 60,000 to 90,000 feet for three months at a time. Parikh is hoping the first test flight will happen before the end of the year.

'A Big Flying Wing'

“This is basically a big flying wing,” Parikh says, calling the development and building of the Aquila drone over the course of just 14 months a “monumental achievement,” and it is hard to argue his point, but this is really just the beginning.

“There is a lot of work that needs to go into certifying this aircraft. This thing is not certified to fly over people’s heads. We are working closely with all the regulatory bodies to do all of the testing. We are absolutely concerned about this; this is something we are not taking lightly,” Parikh says.

Each drone will be able to project a "50-mile-wide cone of connectivity" via lasers being developed at Facebook’s Connectivity Lab in Woodland Hills, California. Others are developing similar laser-based systems, with NASA set to launch one this year that potentially could deliver speeds of 1Gbps, but Facebook is promising technology that will be able to deliver "10s of Gbps" of data to users.

The drones also need to communicate with each other, and this will also be done by lasers, with Parikh comparing this task to trying to hit a dime with a laser from 11 miles away -- while both sides are moving. It has achieved both the data speeds and the plane-to-plane communications in the lab, but rolling this out to the real world is a much bigger challenge.

Google's Project Loon And Project Titan

Should Facebook succeed, there could be thousands of drones flying over remote areas of the world in Africa, Asia and parts of South America, all speaking to each other and controlled by operators who will be able to pinpoint exactly what areas they want to connect.

This is a key difference between this and the other big push to connect people remotely, which is Google’s Project Loon. This effort, which has been in testing for a number of years, uses huge balloons to connect remote areas. They currently can stay afloat for up to six months. Project Loon’s balloons cannot be controlled like the Aquila drones and will therefore continually circle the globe, providing connectivity to different areas of the world.

Google, however, also is building its own solar-powered drone called Project Titan, which is almost identical to Aquila and will work to complement Project Loon. The Aquila project, meanhwile, is just one part of Facebook’s three-pronged approach to connecting the planet. The company also has plans to better connect urban areas and a satellite project that will both connect vast swathes of the globe and link all its networks together.

Parikh said the company is not talking about these two projects in any great detail yet but said there would be more news about the push to connect urban areas in the coming months.

A Dystopian Future Of Facebook Planes

Thousands of Facebook drones flying above the Earth sounds like a scene from a dystopian novel, something George Orwell could have dreamed up. Parikh reassures those worried about Facebook becoming an omniscient surveillance force by saying it is not the company’s plan to become the operator of these drones. It wants governments, networks and institutions to get involved to help roll out the project if it succeeds in its goals.

“We really want to be the catalyst for the technology moving faster, the innovation happening faster in the industry," he said. "Facebook’s intention here is not to be the operator. What we want to be able to do is be the technology provider or the creators of this technology and find a way for governments and the operators to benefit from this and bring it to market.”

One of the challenges facing the project is knowing exactly where to deploy these drones as the amount of data available is so poor. Facebook has one of the best coverage maps of the world, just from information fed back to it from its users, but even that lacks real details.

Aquila The Aquila drone will be able to deliver high-speed Internet to remote areas while staying aloft for three months at a time, Facebook says. Photo: Facebook

To get a better sense of just where it needs to deploy these drones, Facebook partnered with Columbia University and its Gridded Population of the World initiative, which aims to better depict the distribution of human population across the globe.

'Incredibly Expensive Computation'

Using the data from GPW, Facebook's Connectivity Lab has used its burgeoning artificial intelligence division, led by Yann LeCun, and its deep expertise of image recognition, to crunch this data. The result is a map of the world giving granular details of exactly where people are living.

“This takes a ton of storage and compute cycles to generate these graphs,” Parikh says. “This is not something you run on an Excel spreadsheet. This is an incredibly expensive computation that’s happening here.” Despite the huge investment Facebook put into developing this map, it is once again planning to make the whole system available for anyone to download and build upon, as part of the push to make what the company does more open and accessible.

The work Facebook is doing with, the newly renamed Free Basics platform announced on Thursday, and the Aquila drones all links directly to what Parikh said is the core mission of the company -- to connect the planet.

“The challenges to connect the next several billion people are just profound and they are very challenging and different from what we have seen in the past. All the research says that every time you connect people, societies benefit. For every 10 people that get connected, one person gets lifted out of poverty.”

Of course this venture is not entirely altruistic on Facebook’s part, as the first thing many people will do when they first log onto the Internet is create a Facebook account. With Facebook’s growth slowing, opening up a huge new addressable market of billions of people sounds like a great idea for the company -- and if it can do that while connecting people, all the better.