In pictures: Take a peek inside 'Area 404,' Facebook's new hardware lab

Area 404 is where Facebook designs drones and more.

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Martyn Williams

Facebook's Silicon Valley headquarters

Facebook used to design its servers and other hardware at labs scattered across the company, but they've now been consolidated in a state of the art facility at its Menlo Park, California, headquarters. The new lab is called Area 404, a play on the 404 error message seen on the web and, presumably, the U.S. military's Area 51 research base. It covers 22,000 square feet and has 50 workbenches where engineers design, build and test their protptype hardware.

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Project Aries

If you're wondering why Facebook needs a hardware lab, here's an example. Project Aries is a wireless base station that can serve 24 client devices at the same time. The idea is that more data can be sent at higher speeds to more phones, making better use of radio spectrum. Facebook cares about this because it wants as many people as possible in a given area to be able to log into Facebook at the same time. Hardware like this all has to be designed and prototyped somewhere.

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Do it by hand

This is a manual workshop with workbenches and manually operated machinery. This shot shows pillar drills and lathes.

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9-axis precision cutting

This is Facebook's 9-axis mill-turn lathe, used to cut complex parts that require high levels of precision. An example is the gimbal used for air-to-air and air-to-ground laser communications on Facebook's Aquila Interner drone. Facebook says the machine can reduce a multi step, multi process task into a one-step job.

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The 5-axis water jet

This 5-axis water jet can cut sheets of aluminum, steel, granite and stone up to 10 feet by 5 feet across (3 meters by 1.5 meters). The jet can slice through a sheet several inches thick of any one of these materials.

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The collaboration space

The lab has 50 workbenches where teams from departments across the company can work together. Facebook says its engineers make more progress and work faster when they can collaborate to solve problems.

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A vertical milling machine

This 5-axis vertical milling machine is a hardware engineer's dream. It can quickly produce protytype components for projects like Facebook's Terragraph communications system.

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The electron microscope

Sometimes not everything goes to plan, and hardware parts fail. When they do, this electron microscope and CT scanner provide a close-up look at components for failure analysis. It can also produce 3D X-ray images for inspection.

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Laser communications

Here's more of the stuff Facebook builds. This prototype laser detector is part of a system that uses laser light to transmit data at high speed through the air. Because it uses light, it doesn't need radio spectrum licenses, so it's cheap and easy to deploy anywhere.

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Project Aquila

Facebook's Aquila Internet drone is an impressive attempt to expand Internet access to areas that don't have sufficient coverage today. This could be because they are in rural areas, where high-speed networks often don't reach, or in cities and towns that are experiencing a surge in usage due to a sporting event or natural disaster. The drone beams down a 4G signal and remains connected to the Internet via a laser link from the ground.

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Network this

Facebook's Wedge is a networking switch that was originally designed for its own data centers and then shared for everyone to use. The company shares some of its advances in handling large amounts of data, partly so others can use them and also to attract new engineers with its cool projects. 

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Say cheese!

This is Facebook's take on the 360-degree video camera. It has 17 cameras to capture images in all directions and was unveiled ealier this year. Several companies have developed their own all-around cameras and Facebook is pushing hard to make video a big part of its platform. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has spoken several times about using 360 cameras to capture moments in his child's development.

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Opening up cellular equipment

Like the the company's push to produce cheap, standardized data center gear, Facebook Open Cellular is doing the same for cellular network equipment. Facebook hopes that cheap, easy to install networking equipment will help carriers expand their networks and increase coverage -- making it easier for people to log on to Facebook. Several major carriers, representing almost 1.3 billion subscribers, have already signed on to the project, as have some networking equipment vendors.

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