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. 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.
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.
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.
Facebook would also be able to take advantage of advances in solar power – such as perovskite solar cells, which are more efficient than traditional silicon cells – as well as the cheaper, larger and better solar cells produced by Elon Musk’s Gigafactory.
In short, Drone-delivered Wi-Fi is less about ‘if’, and more about ‘when’.
What Are The Challenges
The impact drone technologies will have on providing Internet access cannot be understated. They’ve already had a significant impact on the battlefield. 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 – 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 – 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 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.