Facebook’s Laser Drones Could Bring Internet To 5 Billion People

27 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Drones beaming web access are in the stars for Facebook.

Facebook plans to test a version of its solar-powered drone this summer, a step in its efforts to beam Internet access to billions of people without it today, executives said on Thursday. Facebook gave an update on its ambitious drone strategy Thursday, reportedly touting a solar-powered Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) with a wingspan similar to a Boeing 767.During the developer conference in San Francisco Wednesday, Facebook showcased the new craft’s latest design, which can stay aloft for up to three months at a time.

They are relatively cheap and will be most effective for suburban areas that do not have the cables or infrastructure to carry internet or telephone signals. Facebook said it hopes to connect with the five billion it has yet to reach by launching over 1,000 of these drones capable of beaming high-speed data with lasers from 60,000 to 90,000 feet to some of the world’s most remote regions. “We want to serve every person in the world,” said Yael Maguire, head of Facebook’s Connectivity Lab. “Can we reach a point where everyone on the planet gets the same message at once? During today’s keynote, Facebook also announced that it open sourced its development tool React Native, and showed off new artificial intelligence systems that can identify and understand the meaning of video and text content. I’m looking forward to that day.” Earlier this month, Google announced it’s drone company Titan plans to conduct its maiden voyage this year of aircraft that would also provide internet to people on the ground.

At a summit in New York earlier this year, Facebook’s engineering director announced the vehicles will be closer in size to jumbo jets, than traditional drones, and they’ll soar at 65,000ft (19,800 metres). Just staying in the air for that long is a challenge, but Facebook’s also going to be pushing Internet access down to people 60,000-90,000 feet below using lasers, as well as maintaining communications between drones to maintain coverage across wider regions. Facebook and rival Google are experimenting with multiple technologies to reach people unlikely to be served by traditional landlines or cellular networks. Following the tests, it could then be just three to five years until the super-sized, solar-powered drones are hovering above remote parts of the world to provide internet access. The team is currently working on a new ultra-light drone that would be able to hover in the stratosphere for prolonged periods of time to send internet to a targeted area.

Aquila is the first complete concept we’ve seen come out of Facebook’s acqui-hires of engineers from UK-based Ascenta, unveiled nearly a year ago today. The California-based tech giant has joined forces with Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung and other tech firms to develop the planes in an initiative called Internet.org.

At the conference, the company showed off nearly 50 apps for Messenger, including one that turns text messages into songs and another that allows a user to search for and send an animated GIF to express a mood. The members of the initiative said in a report that connecting the world is ‘one of the fundamental challenges of our time’ and they plan to do it using a variety of technologies, including drones. ‘When people have access to the internet, they can not only connect with their friends, family and communities, but they can also gain access to the tools and information to help find jobs, start businesses, access healthcare, education and financial services and have a greater say in their societies.

Expanding internet access could create another 140 million new jobs, lift 160 million people out of poverty and reduce child mortality by hundreds of thousands of lives. Facebook’s initial partners are the clothing retailers Zulily and Everlane, and the company hopes to lure other types of businesses, like airlines and cable companies, that frequently face customer service issues. The large drones will be capable of broadcasting a powerful signal that covers a city-sized area of territory with a medium population density, according to Internet.org.

It would take a lot of money and I don’t think it’s sustainable long-term.” Some seven million people in seven countries have started using basic Internet services, including Facebook, around the world through the Internet.org initiative. More from WSJ.D: And make sure to visit WSJ.D for all of our news, personal tech coverage, analysis and more, and add our XML feed to your favorite reader. Others are not so sure. “Like Google, Facebook gets a pass, because they’ve defied critics and are run by visionary leaders looking out five or 10 years,” said Scott Kessler, an analyst with S&P Capital IQ. “Still, people would like to know what this costs and if it makes money.” Facebook is also courting partners with the manner in which it builds new kinds of computers at its data centres.

The idea is that if it is open about what it does and even allows other people to use that information and experiment with their own prototypes, then more companies will adopt that technology and align themselves with Facebook. Hewlett-Packard, for example, recently said it would sell computer servers using Facebook designs, which should lower Facebook’s own costs when it buys those servers from H-P or buys semiconductors from the suppliers it has in common with the company. “You go into our data centres and it’s hard to find anything that wasn’t built by us,” said Michael Schroepfer, Facebook’s vice-president of engineering. “We want tons of other companies out there that service the entire planet. We will service the core needs better than anyone else, for free.” Facebook’s effort in artificial intelligence is called deep learning, for the number of levels at which it critically analyzes information. By figuring out context, Facebook better knows why people anywhere are looking at something and what else it can do to keep them engaged. “There is nothing that any single company is going to solve by itself,” said Yann LeCun, Facebook’s AI research director and a New York University professor. For the long term, Zuckerberg hopes Facebook’s AI will translate languages on the fly, know strangers you might meet and, of course, bring you the highest-value ads.

Because, in the end, it’s still about getting you to look at more ads. “The fundamental thing about advertising is people paying to get a message in front of you,” Schroepfer said. “That won’t go away in my life, though the form may change.”

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