Facebook reveals plans for drone-based Internet in the sky

30 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Facebook Ready To Test Drones That Can Deliver Internet At 10 Gigabits A Second.

MENLO PARK, California (AP) — Facebook says it will begin test flights later this year of a solar-powered drone with the wingspan of a Boeing 737, the next stage of its campaign to deliver Internet service to remote parts of the world. Facebook Inc.’s plan for connecting rural areas to the Internet involves using balloons to lift drones to an altitude of 90,000 feet (27,400 meters), where they will fly for up to three months and transmit information using lasers.The social network on Thursday revealed more details about Aquila, the airplane-sized solar-powered drone first teased at this year’s F8 conference back in March.Facebook today detailed its plans for its solar-powered, laser-connected, Internet-beaming Aquila drones, but confirmed it’s not going to compete with Internet Service Providers. “Our intention is not to be an operator” Facebook’s VP of engineering Jay Parikh told an assembly of reporters. “We’re not going to be ‘Facebook ISP.’” Instead, Facebook plans to work with carriers around the world to equip them with these drones so they can sell Internet connectivity to the 10% of the population in remote areas out of reach of existing mobile networks.Facebook has built the first full-scale version of its connectivity drone today, a V-shaped high-altitude device meant to connect people in underserved areas.

Facebook has largely billed its Internet.org project as a humanitarian effort to bring people into the knowledge economy, but Parikh confirmed to me that selling or licensing the solar drones, Free Space Optics lasers, and other technologies are options. Yesterday on its earnings, Facebook reported a massive year-over-year increase in expenditures from $1.5 billion to $2.7 billion, mostly for R&D of projects like these drones.

The initiative is part of Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to increase adoption of the Internet, especially for the 2.5 billion people in the world who don’t have access to mobile data networks. “We want to actually speed up Internet adoption — and in order to speed that up we need to work on the infrastructure challenges we’re working on today,” said Jay Parikh, Facebook’s vice president of engineering. “Our mission in the company is to connect everybody in the world.” With about half of the world’s Web-connected population already using Facebook, getting more people online can help fuel the company’s growth. The first of Facebook’s Aquila aircraft is fully built – The solar-powered drone can remain aloft for 90 days, flying between 60,000 and 90,000 feet above weather and commercial airspace, and distributing Internet to an area around 50 miles across below. This is how it will work: Facebook will have lasers on the ground that can locate the dome-shaped optical head located on the bottom of the plane in the air — basically shooting a laser at a dime-sized target that is more than 10 miles away. Some of its data centers are full of custom-designed servers and networking equipment made to better handle the volume of data being generated by Facebook’s 1.4 billion users.

The company plans to spend the rest of the year building and testing the planes, and has been reviewing some potential testing sites in the U.S., Parikh said. The planes are intended to stay afloat for three months at a time — presently the record for an aircraft staying afloat is two weeks — which is why the entire outside shell will be covered in solar panels. Announced in late 2013, the Facebook-led Internet.org is a partnership of telecom companies designed to bring Internet access to the remaining five billion people without it. According to Yael Maguire, who oversees Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, the current state of the art for laser connectivity is between 1 and 2 gigabits per second. Accomplishing ubiquitous connectivity breaks down to solving three problems: Affordability – Data access is too expensive for many people, so Facebook launched the Internet.org app a year ago to offer free basic Internet to people through carrier partners.

In theory, this new technology will enable Facebook to create a vast Internet network in the sky by transmitting data via laser from the ground to a drone, as well as from drone to drone. Facebook announced earlier this year that Internet.org has helped more than 7 million people in countries such as Columbia, India, Zambia, and Tanzania and wants to be in 100 countries by the end of this year. In April, for example, a group of Internet companies withdrew their support from Internet.org in India following a national backlash over net neutrality.

While Zuckerberg views Internet.org as taking an “Internet for all”-type approach, critics argue Internet.org actually follows a “Zero rating” model, wherein service providers offer customers a set of services or applications that are free to use without a data plan or that don’t factor in data plan usage. Worse still, they maintain, Internet.org could create a “two-tiered Internet,” a scenario where new Internet users “get stuck on a separate and unequal path to Internet connectivity, which will serve to widen — not narrow — the digital divide.” Facebook, for its part, has tried addressing the criticism recently by rolling out the Internet.org platform this May, which lets outside developers create complimentary services. Parikh and Facebook Engineering Director of Connectivity Yael Maguire confessed there’s much more work to be done on Aquila before its ready for large-scale deployment.

The solar panels will absorb enough energy from the sun during the day so that at night we’ll have enough power stored for continuous flying and avionics. Our optics team has designed and lab-tested optical transceivers that improve upon the state-of-the-art by 10 times, capable of transmuting tens of billions of bits per second. This will help us in our connectivity goals because this FSO technology can be used in coordination with all of the connectivity solutions we’re pursuing. When I tell people about the rapid progress we’ve made in this work — an innovative new aircraft and a state-of-the-art laser communications system in 14 months — I sometimes get confused looks.

And we have experience, with the Open Compute Project, in being the catalyst for more openness and more industry collaboration in the development of exciting new infrastructure technologies. Instead, we want to quickly advance the state of these technologies to the point that they become viable solutions for operators and other partners to deploy.

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