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Almost two thirds of the world’s population lack Internet access. Many of those people live in areas where traditional broadband services are unaffordable, or unavailable. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg seems eager to address this very real inequality with autonomous drones that will provide free Internet access.

The drones – announced at the Social Good Summit in New York City – will be the size of a commercial airliner like the Boeing 747, but will be much, much lighter, weighing roughly the same as four car tires. They’ll also be environmentally friendly; taking advantage of solar power to run indefinitely.

Facebook hopes to launch its first flight in 2015, and aims to start providing free WiFi three to five years after that. Curious about the finer details of Zuckerberg’s plan? Read on.

Facebook’s Commitment to Universal Internet Access

Facebook has been fairly (and unfairly) criticized in the past for its approach to user privacy, and for playing with the emotions of their users Don’t Be an Experiment: How to Control Your Facebook News Feed Don’t Be an Experiment: How to Control Your Facebook News Feed What determines what is and isn't a top Facebook post? How often you interact with a person, topics you're interested in, how many likes or comments the post attracts, and – apparently – psychological experiments. Read More . But they’re not totally evil, as their recent investments in the Indian broadband sector shows.

Facebook is a member of Internet.org; a group of some of the largest technology firms eager to bring the Internet to as many people around the world as possible.

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They’ve also been working with governments and institutions to bring about universal Internet access at the highest levels. In a meeting with Indian technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, Zuckerberg agreed to become a partner in the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) program, which aims to connect 250,000 (2.5 lakh) villages to a high-speed broadband network, much like the NBN in Australia.

broadband-dig

The NOFN program is expected to cost as much as 21,000 crore rupees (around $3.5 billion), with Facebook contributing with funding and technical expertise for last-mile connectivity. In talks with Minister Prasad, Zuckerberg emphasized how satellites and drones could potentially play an important role in providing this connectivity.

Facebook isn’t a company one immediately associates with drones. Plus, the idea of a super-lightweight aircraft that provides free, fast Internet access and doesn’t burn any fossil fuels seems pretty unlikely. Yet, Facebook happens to have a great deal of experience in the UAV field.

How This Could Work

Ascenta Aerospace is a tiny, UK based drone manufacturer, operating from a farm in the picturesque greenery of Somerset. In March, earlier this year, Facebook acquired them for $20 million dollars, in a move that had many scratching their heads.

And yet, placed within the context of Facebook’s plans for providing Internet access for the world, the purchase of Ascenta makes total sense. They were contributors to the development of the Quinetiq Zephyr, the world’s longest flying unmanned aircraft. In 2010, the Zephyr 7 flew unaided and unmanned for 336 hours and 22 minutes (around two weeks), at an altitude of 21,562 meters.

The Zephyr is also incredibly light, with the Zephyr 7 weighing in around 53 Kilograms.

Facebook has also been eagerly hiring aerospace engineers to work on their connectivity aircraft, including experts from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and Ames Research Center.

Of course, Facebook are tackling some major technological challenges with their connectivity project. Firstly, their drone would have to be able to fly indefinitely and serve wi-fi, without requiring any direct human intervention or refueling.

Solar power is the most obvious solution for this problem. Facebook would be able to build on the achievements of the Solar Impulse 2 – the Swiss-built airplane designed to circumnavigate the world in a single flight – which could theoretically stay airborne indefinitely.

broadband-solar-impulse

Facebook would also be able to take advantage of advances in solar power – such as perovskite solar cells Efficient. Cheap. Awesome. Here's Why New Spray-On Solar Cells Matter Efficient. Cheap. Awesome. Here's Why New Spray-On Solar Cells Matter The cost of solar energy is set to drop precipitously after a team of scientists working at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom announced development of solar cells using a spray-on process. Read More , which are more efficient than traditional silicon cells – as well as the cheaper, larger and better solar cells produced by Elon Musk’s Gigafactory Goodbye Power Company: Why You May Soon Be Generating Your Own Electricity Goodbye Power Company: Why You May Soon Be Generating Your Own Electricity Solar power allows the clean generation of electricity, using a source that is guaranteed to never run out in our lifetime - the sun. But will it ever beat out the power companies? Read More .

In short, Drone-delivered Wi-Fi is less about ‘if’, and more about ‘when’.

What Are The Challenges

The impact drone technologies 7 Industries Drones Are Set to Revolutionize 7 Industries Drones Are Set to Revolutionize Seven industries that are ready and braced to be (mostly positively) impacted – if not revolutionized – by drones. Read More will have on providing Internet access cannot be understated. They’ve already had a significant impact on the battlefield Drone Wars: How UAV Tech Is Transforming the Future of War Drone Wars: How UAV Tech Is Transforming the Future of War A revolution is taking place right now on the battlefields of the world: wars are fought increasingly by drones. Read More . But first, there are some significant hurdles that Facebook has to overcome.

The first would require Facebook to gain regulatory approval to operate unmanned flights. This could potentially be a challenge in India, where some local authorities have had difficult relationships with drone operators. From the India Times:

The Mumbai police recently raised objections when a food outlet used a four-rotor drone to deliver pizza. Such airborne devices could face questions from the aviation regulator apart from any misgivings the security establishment may have.

Concerns have also been raised about how changes in weather conditions could affect these drones, and how they will impact commercial air traffic.

The drones themselves will fly at an altitude of 60,000 to 90,000 feet. This is far above the altitude most jetliners would operate at, given that the altitude for a typical transatlantic flight is between 35,000 to 39,000 feet above sea level. The high altitude they operate at would also mean they’re pretty much invulnerable to changes in weather conditions.

It remains to be seen how these drones will perform in the real-world. While they would likely be able to serve static content, they would probably suffer in real-time operations such as online gaming, voice chatting with Skype and webcasting. This would be due to the large distances the WiFi signals would have to travel in order to reach the drone, and the high latency that would ensue.

Who Else Is In The Drone Game

Google is also eager to bring more and more people on-line. To do that, they’re working on Project Loon Google Announces Balloon-Powered Internet With Project Loon [Updates] Google Announces Balloon-Powered Internet With Project Loon [Updates] Google announced on Friday that it will release a new product that incorporates balloons and wireless Internet. Dubbed Project Loon, Google explained most of the details in its company blog, but some questions are still... Read More – a balloon powered Wifi hotspot, tested in New Zealand – and have also acquired US drone maker Titan Aerospace. Other projects to get more people online include Android One Android One Launches In India With Three Phones Under $110 Android One Launches In India With Three Phones Under $110 Android One, Google's program to create high quality yet inexpensive smartphones, is finally a reality. Learn all about these new smartphones and how they could change the world. Read More – which offers a high-end Android experience on low-end, affordable hardware. Then there’s Mozilla’s Firefox OS – which shoehorns a high-end, app-driven Top 15 Firefox OS Apps: The Ultimate List For New Firefox OS Users Top 15 Firefox OS Apps: The Ultimate List For New Firefox OS Users Of course there is an app for that: It's web technology after all. Mozilla's mobile operating system Firefox OS that, instead of native code, uses HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript for its apps. Read More smartphone operating system into weedy, underpowered devices.

The digital divide between the first and third world looks set to close in our lifetime. What do you think? Drop me a comment in the box below and let me know your thoughts.

Photo Credits: mini drone Via Shutterstock, Solar Impulse – Version 2 (Charles Barilleaux)

  1. Pete Dooley
    March 27, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    No mention of weather...
    Wind Velocity Study (last few pages) Calmer at high altitudes but what about during a storm?
    http://www.aeropac.org/newsletters/HAW&T%20at%20Black%20Rock.pdf

  2. Rob
    October 26, 2014 at 10:30 am

    Awesome article Matt, though "they’re not totally evil, as their recent investments in the Indian broadband sector shows." - sure this isn't something to do with increased profitability??

    Interesting to see whether this actually 'takes off', or whether it's yet another pipe dream/long shot (i.e. Amazon's drone delivery)- only time will tell!

  3. CYBERpsycotic
    October 19, 2014 at 7:14 pm

    Zuckerberg and company as well as Google make a good bit of money off advertising and while these 'poor' countries are well poor maybe there is a company out there that would want to pay to get the attention of these new areas. Who knows.

    The concept of drones used to help people versus sending them for military purposes is a nice change.

    I'm curious how well the interweb connection will work from a drone. I know satellite phones don't do well near mountains or in other similar situations not sure about these drones.

    • Matthew Hughes
      October 25, 2014 at 8:46 pm

      True. I think the advantage of the Facebook drones is that they're not vulnerable to the issues that impact satellite phones. Namely, weather and the disruption caused in mountainous regions.

      AFAIK, they're just really big, really powerful WiFi hotspots in the sky. Cool, right?

  4. Arsal
    October 18, 2014 at 11:55 am

    Sounds like Sci-fi in a place like Nawada in Bihar, India
    .
    but this is editable !

    • Matthew Hughes
      October 19, 2014 at 6:09 pm

      It will become a reality in a few years!

  5. Bill
    October 18, 2014 at 7:58 am

    This will not be tollerated.
    This is just another tracking and control device in the diguise.
    I will shoot down all Drones!

    • Sally
      October 18, 2014 at 2:18 pm

      Yea, I will shoot them down too!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Kalin
      October 18, 2014 at 4:47 pm

      Go ahead, try to shoot down a drone flying 60k-90k feet in the air. Get someone to hold your beer and then record a video so YouTube watchers can laugh at you.

    • Matthew Hughes
      October 19, 2014 at 5:26 pm

      Kalin got there first. These drones are flying very, very high indeed. Best of luck shooting them down with anything that isn't a high-powered fighter jet.

  6. Dee Wheat
    October 18, 2014 at 3:29 am

    Hey, SE Texas is as close to a wasteland as it gets! Send me one. It can't possibly be worse than my cable company, which is dismal, and they're my best option.

    • Matthew Hughes
      October 19, 2014 at 6:10 pm

      Heh, I hear you. I've got some friends in West Texas. That's as isolated as it gets! And their Internet speeds are terrible!

    • Dee Wheat
      October 19, 2014 at 6:26 pm

      You heard right! They just installed a new fiberoptic system, or so they claim, and my speed is worse that it was before the "improvements". I can rarely even watch a YouTube, much less do anything more ambitious!

  7. dejan
    October 15, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    TOP NEWS

  8. Peter Stewart
    October 15, 2014 at 11:21 am

    I have read Project Loon is undergoing testing in one, full size State in US and that roll out to Africa and Asia could start in 2nd half of 2015.

    • Matthew Hughes
      October 19, 2014 at 6:10 pm

      They've already done field-tests in New Zealand! It looks like it's certainly tenable.

  9. Keith Jones
    October 15, 2014 at 12:52 am

    What a great idea

    • Matthew Hughes
      October 19, 2014 at 6:12 pm

      Agreed. Thanks for your comment Keith!

  10. Chuck
    October 14, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    WOW.

  11. chana
    October 14, 2014 at 2:43 pm

    what about the first and first world? Are any of these plans interested in the many people in the US who don't have internet access (including low-income people and people in rural communities?) I know the big internet companies have effectively quashed a lot of municipal governments' efforts to create local broadband/wifi access--will Zuckerman be able to push that through because he's Big Business, or is he just going to concentrate on countries where the bigger players don't go at all?

    • Matthew Hughes
      October 19, 2014 at 6:12 pm

      Eh. I'm not sure. I think the emphasis is indeed on serving the poorest of the poor.

      Thanks for your comment!

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