Facebook says drone ready for real-world testing later this year

30 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Facebook Is About to Test Its Enormous Solar-Powered Drone.

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.This enormous unmanned aerial vehicle is called Aquila—a nod to the eagle who carried Jupiter’s thunder bolts in Greek mythology—and it’s part of Facebook’s rather ambitious effort to deliver Internet access to the more than 4 billion people on earth who don’t already have it.

Facebook today detailed its plans for its solar-powered, laser-connected, Internet-beaming Aquila drones, but confirmed its 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. The idea is that Aquila will circle in the stratosphere, above the weather, wirelessly beaming Internet signals to base stations in underdeveloped areas of countries like Nigeria and India.

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. Earlier this year, the company tested smaller models of this aircraft, and now, according to Facebook’s Yael Maguire, who oversees the project, the company is ready to test the full-size Aquila prototype. “The aircraft is real,” he tells WIRED, before a briefing with other reporters at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. 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, and distributing Internet to an area around 50 miles across below.It has the 140 foot wingspan of a Boein 737 but only ways 880 pounds, about one third as much as a Prius.

According to Maguire, the group has designed and tested a laser that can deliver data at “10s of Gbits per second,” hitting a target the size of a dime at a distance of 10 miles. Facebook’s Internet-beaming laser delivered a 10 gigabit connection in tests, roughly 10X the previous record – The laser is used to beam a connection from a fiber optic cable on the ground in a city up to one of the Aquila drones, which has its own laser to relay that connection to other drones. The social network wanted the drone to be self-powered for months at a time and be able to fly above commercial airspace and weather elements to minimize complications. 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. Google is testing its own solar-powered drones—crashing one earlier this year—and it’s designing enormous balloons that can already stay aloft at similar heights for upwards of 180 days.

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. Accomplishing this breaks down to 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. But these projects still have a long way to go. “There are many challenges ahead,” says Phil Finnegan, an analyst with the Virginia-based research outfit The Teal Group, who specializes in unmanned aerial vehicles. “Technologies are improving, but we’re not there yet.” Indeed, it seems that Facebook has yet to test its 737-sized drone, and Maguire says the company likely won’t reach its 90-day-aloft goal until the end of this year or early next.

But thanks to insights from the company’s data centers, Facebook said it has reached a milestone of laser-based connectivity of at least 10 gigabits per second. At 60,000 feet, the drones are indeed above the most violent weather—and the clouds—but they must still deal with a little wind and extremely cold temperatures. 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.

Added weight could affect speed, but he believes that Facebook’s goal of a 90-day flight time is very doable. “Long-term, this is definitely a feasible idea,” he says. “We’ve already seen similar aircraft that can fly around the globe.” Of course, Facebook must also find ways of reliably beaming that Internet access down to earth. 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 confess 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.

Aquila, Latin for “eagle,” was designed and constructed by our aerospace team in the U.K., and the prototype is now complete and should begin flight tests later this year. 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.

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