Facebook Aims to Provide Internet to "Every Person in the World" with Drones, Satellites
April 1, 2014 10:20 AM
Facebook acquires dronemaker, partners with Samsung and others to deploy mobile servers
Not to be one upped by Amazon.com, Inc. (
) CEO Jeff Bezos's perhaps
quixotic drone delivery scheme
, Facebook, Inc. (
) CEO Mark Zuckerberg has an exotic plan of his own to use an emerging technology to further the reach of his business. And that plan involves.... er... drones.
I. Off the Grid? Think Again
Yes, apparently Facebook too is plotting to deploy drones for some sort of odd business scheme. But unlike Amazon's drones that flutter past your bedroom window (yeah, about that) down to your doorstep, Facebook's drones will hover aloft far above your house -- really far.
Facebook has teamed with Qualcomm, Inc. (
), Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (
), Nokia Oyj. (
), and Ericsson AB (
), among others to use drones in a novel bid for universal global internet coverage. In Facebook's ideal world, there would be no such thing as going "off the grid". While some living in remote regions might choose not to use internet, there's a good chance your neighbor -- who
currently doesn't have that option
To get there Facebook wants to deploy servers mounted to drones. These aerial servers would hover continuously aloft at 20,000 meters (roughly 65,000 feet). They would be powered by solar power, and would -- in theory -- never touch down except for occasional maintenance. Tens of thousands of these drones would eventually stretch out to span the world's most remote and inaccessible inhabited regions, bringing internet access to all.
The solar bit might get pricey, but considering that last year a solar-powered aircraft with humans onboard have
completed a two month flight across the country
(making multiple hops), a lightweight server mounted to a high altitude drone certainly is within reach technology (in fact it wouldn't be surprising if certain spy agencies have created such a drone).
And the airborne drone server scheme likely will face
fewer legal hurdles than Amazon's
given that it operates in standard airspace for research craft and does not involve impromptu landings on your doorstep (not commercial airspace).
Yael Maguire, a multi-disciplinary wizard who received his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is spearheading the Facebook project. As an alumnus of the famous MIT Media Lab, Mr. Maguire started a number of successful startups before and was named one of
The MIT Technology Review
Innovators Under 35
", back in 2005. Now he's hard at work at Facebook, looking to make the company's wild drone vision a reality.
Facebook has also
reportedly hired several engineers from Ascenta
, a company that worked on
the "Zephyr", the unmanned solar aerial drone
that holds the record for autonomous solar flight. It's unclear exactly how long Zephyr UAVs have flown, but official they reached flights of two weeks without landing back in 2010. Zephyrs are produced by British QinetiQ.
Facebook hired the experts that helped design the ostensible world-record-holding solar drone, the Zephyr. [Image Source: QinetiQ]
As the company grew larger and became an acquisition target some of the Zephyr project team defected to form Ascenta. Now those veterans are putting their expertise to work at Facebook.
II. Like Google Loon, Facebook's Drone Scheme is Laser Driven, Stratospheric
But wait, how do the drones carry the internet signals, you ask? Well Facebook plans to use line of site technologies with laser beams to essentially create an aerial fiber optic network (without the fiber). The technology is dubbed "free-space optical communication" (FSO).
At 20 km up, the drones will be in the stratosphere. That will place them safely above most weather that would block signals. It will also place them in thinner atmosphere that offers less obstruction to the intense solar light they need to stay afloat, plus less distortion of their laser beam signals.
The network would be supplemented with satellites using the same FSO tech. The drones would largely be allotted to moderately more highly populated unserved/underserved areas, while the satellites were serve very sparsely populated areas.
Google Inc.'s (
) X Labs has
a similar project called "Project Loon"
. Operating at a similar altitude it involves weather balloon mounted servers and presumably some sort of inter balloon signaling.
So while Amazon is eyeing drones on your doorstep, Google and Facebook have their heads -- or drones -- in the clouds.
Facebook on YouTube
"Well, there may be a reason why they call them 'Mac' trucks! Windows machines will not be trucks." -- Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer
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