Behind the scenes with Facebook’s new solar-powered Internet drone and laser …

31 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Facebook Shows Off Its Solar-Powered ‘Aquila’ Internet Drone.

This image provided by Facebook shows the Aquila, a high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft with a wingspan as big as a Boeing 737, designed by Facebook’s aerospace team in the United Kingdom.Facebook Inc announced on Thursday it has completed building its first full-scale drone, which has the wingspan of a Boeing-737 jet and will provide Internet access to the most remote parts of the world.

Powered by the sun, each 1,000 lb. drone would fly lazy circles more than 11 miles above the Earth, providing broadband-level Internet for people in a 50-mile radius below. To affordably connect everyone, we need to build completely new technologies.” A statement issued by Facebook said: “Our team has many of the world’s leading experts in aerospace and communications technology, including from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and Ames Research Center. “Today we are also bringing on key members of the team from Ascenta, a small UK-based company whose founders created early versions of Zephyr, which became the world’s longest flying solar-powered unmanned aircraft.” It comes as Google pursues Project Loon, its own mission to bring Wi-Fi to remote countries using giant ‘loon balloons’ said to be able to stay aloft for 100 days at a time. It has a wingspan of nearly 140 feet but weighs less than the average car, thanks to its carbon fiber construction — its “flying wing” design also makes it look something like a stealth bomber. Each would spend three months aloft before slowly floating down to earth “like a feather” for refit, said Jay Parikh, vice president of engineering at Facebook. Though Facebook is better known for online software that lets people share news with friends, watch viral videos — and view commercial advertising — engineers in a unit called the Connectivity Lab are working on a different set of problems.

Solar Impulse 2, the solar plane currently making a pit stop in Hawaii on its round-the-world trip, has a 236-foot wingspan. “We probably had a look at about five or six sizes of aircraft,” said Andy Cox, from Facebook’s Aviation Team. “It got bigger every time.” The idea is that several Aquilas would enter the stratosphere above areas where Internet providers can’t reach. For one thing, they are designing a laser communications system they hope will be accurate enough to hit a target the size of a dime at a distance of 11 miles, said Yael Maguire, director of the unit, which is responsible for drones, satellites and other high-tech communications projects.

Using lasers that could pinpoint a dime from 10 miles away, the Aquilas would communicate with a base station, each other, and the households receiving the Internet connectivity. This project differs from other Facebook’s Internet.org efforts, which have used the company’s resources to sponsor access to existing infrastructure. The answer the company’s engineers have come up with involves sending planes that can beam down access far above commercial airspace, where there are no commercial flights to run into and no weather to interfere with flight.

The drones are part of a program called Aquila, which is geared toward the 10 per cent of the population that does not have any Internet access, executives said. One of Facebook’s biggest breakthroughs in the project has been increasing data capacity of the lasers that will connect the planes with a land-based fiber line that is the link to the Internet. Facebook’s team has developed a system whose ground-based laser can transmit information to a dome on the underside of the plane at rates 1,000 times faster than has previously been possible. “The team has figured out how to do a laser communion system that can go tens of gigabits in a second,” Parikh said. “Doing that in fiber is routine, but doing it through the air has never been done.” Facebook’s team plans to spend the second half of 2015 doing structural tests on the one plane they’ve build, “making sure it flies,” said Parikh. “We still have development to go on the batteries, solar cells and avionics, there are huge challenges, this has never been done before,” said Maguire. Facebook also has a separate but related initiative that works with wireless carriers to provide limited mobile Internet service at no cost, in countries where residents are too poor to afford traditional wireless plans.

But the company invited reporters Thursday to hear an update on its effort to provide service to about 10 percent of the world’s population who live in regions where it’s not practical or too expensive to build the usual infrastructure for Internet service. Facebook’s drone was developed in part with engineering expertise that joined the company when it acquired a British aerospace startup, Ascenta, last year. Facebook engineering vice president Jay Parikh said the team created a design that uses rigid but light-weight layers of carbon fiber, capable of flying in the frosty cold temperatures found at high altitudes, for an extended period of time. Each drone will fly in a circle with a radius of about 3 kilometers, which the engineers hope will enable it to provide Internet service to an area with a radius of about 50 kilometers.

For the plan to work, Facebook’s engineers are also counting on a recent breakthrough they’ve made in laser optics, which Maguire said would allow them to transmit data at up to 10 gigabits per second. Facebook is designing the drones to transmit signals from one aircraft to another, so they can relay signals across a broader area on the ground, he added. Facebook hopes to share the technology with telecommunications carriers and development agencies, which it hopes will build and operate the drone networks, Parikh said. “We’re not going to operate this ourselves,” he added. “We’re focused on finding ways to drive the industry to move faster.” CEO Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged Facebook’s business will benefit in the long run if more people gain Internet access, but he says the effort isn’t driven by profit-seeking.

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