Facebook ready to test giant laser wielding internet drone

31 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Facebook launches Aquila solar-powered drone for internet access.

In its latest announcement, Facebook reveals to have completed building its first full-scale drone, Aquila, that aims at providing Internet access to the most remote parts of the world. Code-named “Aquila”, the solar-powered drone will be able to fly without landing for three months at a time, using a laser to beam data to a base station on the ground. 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. According to Zuckerberg, Aquila has a wingspan similar to a Boeing 737 (roughly 42 meters), but it weighs less than a typical car and can remain airborne for months. However, as with its Internet.org project, Facebook will not be dealing with customers directly, instead partnering with local ISPs to offer the services.

The project is part of a broader effort by Facebook that also contemplates using satellites and other high-tech gear to deliver internet connectivity to hundreds of millions of people living in regions too remote for conventional service. 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. This is going to be a great opportunity for us to motivate the industry to move faster on this technology.” Yael Maguire, the company’s engineering director of connectivity, said that the plane will operate between 60,000ft (18km) and 90,000ft (27km) – above the altitude of commercial airplanes – so it would not be affected by weather.

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. Zuckerberg explains in his post announcing the completion of Aquila, “This effort is important because 10% of the world’s population lives in areas without existing internet infrastructure. It will climb to its maximum height during the day, before gliding slowly down to its lowest ebb at night, to conserve power when its solar panels are not receiving charge. To affordably connect everyone, we need to build completely new technologies.” In addition to designing and building the solar powered, lightweight aircraft, Facebook also pioneered some interesting laser communication technology.

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. 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 fibre, capable of flying in the frosty cold temperatures found at high altitudes, for an extended period of time.

Lacking wheels, or even the ability to climb from ground level to its cruising altitude without aid, it will be launched with the help of helium balloons, which will rise it to its preferred height. 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. A ground station will transmit a radio internet signal to a “mother” aircraft, which will then in turn feed other aircraft in the constellation using free space laser communication tech. It faces competition from a similar programme developed by Google to bring wireless internet to rural communities using high-altitude helium balloons.

Each drone will fly in a circle with a radius of about three kilometres, which the engineers hope will enable it to provide internet service to an area with a radius of about 50 kilometres. Zuckerberg closes his announcement with, “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.” I’m hoping their efforts pay off.

Unlike the drones, the balloons cannot be directly steered, but Google claims that, with an accurate enough model of wind speeds and directions, it is possible to effectively direct the balloons simply by raising or lowering their altitude to ensure they blow in the desired direction. While Facebook has built and tested smaller prototypes at a plant in the United Kingdom, it is looking at a site in the United States for testing the full-sized drone, said Mr Parikh, who declined to be more specific.

But Internet.org has also been criticised by activists in both the developed and developing world for only linking users to a walled-garden version of the internet. He told the Guardian: “In the particular case of somebody who’s offering … something which is branded internet, it’s not internet, then you just say no. No it isn’t free, no it isn’t in the public domain, there are other ways of reducing the price of internet connectivity and giving something … [only] giving people data connectivity to part of the network deliberately, I think is a step backwards.”

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