Thursday, December 17, 2015

Details of a secretive Facebook test related to drones disappeared from the public record



Facebook is going to lengths to conceal testing related to its drones, and it recently modified documents already in the public record to remove key bits of information.

Facebook is developing solar-powered drones capable of beaming internet service to people in underserved regions of the world. But the company has provided little information about the project, even as it moves forward with testing key components.

Details of Facebook’s plan to conduct airborne tests in Southern California using experimental equipment made by military contractor Raytheon appeared to vanish from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s website in recent weeks.

The test, which Business Insider wrote about in November, was being conducted by Facebook ’s drone subsidiary FCL Tech and involved “applications for air-to-ground communications in the E-Band,” a radio frequency well-suited to high-bandwidth data throughput.

The filing described using an airplane-mounted radio station, along with “experimental” equipment made by Raytheon and Silvus Technologies for tests in Camarillo, California in the coming months.

The limited details of the test were part of the public record through the Facebook subsidiary’s filing, which was seeking a special license from the FCC.

But now, the social networking company appears to have taken steps to retroactively obscure some of the information. A series of unusual modifications to the documents uncovered by Business Insider had the effect of making the records effectively disappear from the FCC website.

The incident underscores the extent to which internet companies like Facebook and Google prize secrecy as they race to develop drones, satellites, and high-altitude balloons to offer new services, as well as the challenges facing the public’s access to information at a time when corporations seek to use airspace and airwaves in unprecedented ways.

Every detail changed to "X"

Shortly after Business Insider wrote about the test, the FCC filing with the details of the experiment was updated with a new filing that replaced all information with the letter “x.”

Although the original document remained buried in the FCC’s online database, anyone looking for it on the FCC website by searching for “FCL Tech” would be stymied. That’s because even the “FCL Tech” name on the document was deleted and replaced with the letter “x.”

After Business Insider asked the FCC about the matter, FCL’s name suddenly re-appeared on the application, making the document once again retrievable through a name search (all the other information including the description of airplane-mounted radios and the Raytheon equipment remains obscured).

You can see how the document has changed based on screenshots taken during the past month. Here's the original filing that describes the test:




Facebook's FCL then updated the filing, which appeared like this for several weeks:



After Business Insider contacted the FCC, the FCL name and other basic contact information re-appeared at the top of the filing:




Facebook declined to comment on the changes.

FCC records state that the Facebook application was withdrawn "at the request of applicant."

In a comical twist, the FCC letter officially acknowledging the withdrawal of the application was addressed to “Dear x,” due to the modifications to the application on file. The letter was updated one month later, on December 17, with the proper contact information.

An FCC spokesperson provided the following statement: 

The FCC works with applicants to help them with any questions they may have about the process for filing applications for experimental licenses. The applicants file their applications electronically directly into the Commission’s Experimental Licensing System.  The applicant may make changes to their applications at any time during the review process; the FCC does not modify applications.  In this particular case, the applicant submitted an application, subsequently modified it, and then requested its dismissal.  A new application was subsequently submitted following that initial application, which remains in the system.

A new filing and Aquila clues

Although Facebook withdrew its first application to the FCC for the test, the test appears to be going anyway.

On November 20, a day after Facebook’s previous application was withdrawn, FCL Tech submitted a new FCC application to test wireless E-band equipment in the same Southern California location. The most noticeable difference is that the new filing provided no details of the experiment, such as whether it involves airborne tests. The section of the application that listed equipment by Raytheon and Silvus in FCL’s previous application for E-band testing now simply reads “confidential.”

The project, which the document says will occur between December 7 and January 22, appears to related to Facebook’s Aquila drone. Facebook built the drone and tested it in the UK. The drone was moved to the US in September, according to a report in The Guardian, but the company has not yet announced any test flights of the drone in the U.S.

Camarillo is not among the regions that the FAA has cleared for drone testing, so it's unlikely that Facebook is conducting actual test flights of the Aquila drone there. But the company could be testing communications equipment related to its drone effort. 

An announcement on the website of Silvus Technologies, which makes a radio for “mesh networking in harsh environments,” stated that the company had been selected to “support Project Aquila.” The announcement, which linked to Business Insider’s article, has since been removed from the website.

A Silvus representative declined to comment when contacted by Business Insider, citing a confidentiality agreement. Raytheon, whose products include everything from the Tomahawk missile to radar systems, did not respond to requests for comment about the type of technology it was providing for the tests.

Original article can be found here:  http://www.businessinsider.com

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