Facebook builds drone for internet access

31 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Facebook Taking Open-Source Software Ethos to Drones.

Washington: Facebook has completed the production of its first full-scale solar-powered internet drone that will deliver wireless internet with lasers from the sky in parts of the developing world where internet availability is still a dream.Facebook is developing advanced telecommunications, complete with autonomous laser-firing drones, and it is doing it as if it were a big software project. The plane would weigh about 880lbs (400kg), said Yael Maguire, the company’s engineering director of connectivity, and operate between 60,000ft (18km) and 90,000ft (27km) – above the altitude of commercial airplanes – so it would not be affected by weather.

That may be a more daring idea than solar-powered planes that fly for three months at a time, which the company detailed on Thursday at a news conference at its Silicon Valley headquarters. We have successfully tested a new laser that can transmit data at 10 gigabits per second,” he continued. “That is 10 times faster than any previous system, and it can accurately connect with a point the size of a dime from more than 10 miles away,” Zuckerberg said. “When the carbon fibre material undergoes a kind of heating process known as curing, it can become “stronger than steel for the same mass of material,” Yael Maguire, Facebook Connectivity Lab director, wrote in a blog post. Unlike traditional aerospace or telecommunications projects, Facebook plans to make public large amounts of what it learns, executives there say, similar to the way people share software code in open-source projects.

The drone has been developed by Facebook’s Connectivity Lab which is part of Facebook’s Internet.org initiative to bring the internet to places where there is a lack of connectivity. 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.

That is how the Linux operating system, which now powers more of the world’s computers than any competitor, became so widely used. “Getting people to adopt the Internet faster is our end goal,” said Jay Parikh, vice president for connectivity at Facebook. “If this gets used by car companies, and that comes back and helps us with batteries for drones, great.” To build out the drones, called Aquila, Facebook hired people with expertise in areas like solar power and battery materials as well as space laser scientists, and aviation engineers. Facbook was able to increase that to a 10 gigabit transmission thanks, in part, to working with people who put information on the light inside fiber optic lines. The solar-powered drones are part of a program called Aquila, which according to Facebook executives is geared towards the 10% of the population who do not have any internet access. Although Facebook does not immediately face policy or legal hurdles in testing its drone in the US, Maguire said, it was the first company to fly at such altitudes and had a team working with policymakers to help set guidelines. The plane will first hone in on the general location of the laser on the ground, proceeding to target it further and lock onto the location so that it can start beaming down the internet. “Over the coming months, we will test these systems in the real world and continue refining them so we can turn their promise into reality,” Zuckerberg further posted.

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. In addition, the team has been able to use skills, including Facebook’s expertise in analyzing things like family snapshots, for tasks like examining satellite images of villages to accurately judge populations and economic activity. 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. In fact, much of the thinking behind opening up the connectivity discoveries was informed by Facebook’s Open Compute initiative, an open-source approach to building huge data centers. While Facebook has built and tested smaller prototypes at a plant in the United Kingdom, it’s looking at a site in the United States for testing the full-sized drone, said Parikh, who declined to be more specific.

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. Facebook says it has contacted a number of companies involved in both aerospace and telecommunications equipment, though it won’t say which ones, or whether other companies will commit to the project.

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