Facebook has ended its involvement in building internet connectivity-boosting drones in the UK over concerns about excess competition, shutting the doors of its plant in Bridgwater for good and laying off staff as a result.
First announced in 2014 under the name Project Aquila, the tech giant wanted to make self-flying planes the size of a Boeing 747 that would beam lasers back down to Earth and provide high speed internet access to homes.
In a statement released last night, Facebook's director of engineering Yael Maguire said the company would be ceasing any efforts to build those planes itself, despite acquiring Somerset-based UAV manufacturer Ascenta to do just that three years ago.
"It's been exciting to see leading companies in the aerospace industry start investing in this technology too — including the design and construction of new high-altitude aircraft," he wrote.
"Given these developments, we've decided not to design or build our own aircraft any longer, and to close our facility in Bridgwater."
City A.M. understands that 16 jobs will be lost as a result of the shutdown, however the project will continue under the guiding hand of Facebook employees hired for its more wide-ranging connectivity initiative in California.
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Maguire added that Facebook will continue to its work with Airbus on High-Altitude Platform System (HAPS) connectivity more generally, as part of the deal it signed with the airplane maker in November last year. As a result, Airbus will most likely be manufacturing the planes for Facebook's HAPS efforts going forward.
Increasing innovation in HAPS connectivity efforts has meant that Facebook's planes were failing to meet the long flight times managed by similar projects from rivals like Google's Project Loon, which used high-altitude balloons instead of drones.
Project Aquila itself had already experienced some public setbacks before the decision to close down building was made, when the first of two high-profile test flights of a prototype drone in 2016 resulted in serious damage to an aircraft wing upon landing.
The Bridgwater plant's CEO and founder and leader of Project Aquila, Andrew Cox, left the company last month.