Solar Powered Drones Set To Stream Internet Around The World
Back in March of 2014, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg purchased Ascenta, a Somerset-based designer of solar-powered drones.
Soon after he published the following statement: “In our effort to connect the whole world with Internet.org, we’ve been working on ways to beam internet to people from the sky….Today, we’re sharing some details of the work Facebook’s Connectivity Lab is doing to build drones, satellites and lasers to deliver the internet to everyone.”
In March of 2015, Facebook finally unveiled a full-scale version of their solar drone, and it’s pretty impressive.
The Aquila was designed and built in just 14 months. It was specifically developed for providing internet access to developing parts of the world, where traditional telecommunication infrastructure systems, such as cell towers or fiber optic systems, are insufficient or non-existent.
According to the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, 43.4% of the world’s population does not have accesses to the internet.
Facebook’s solar drone is part of their plan for extending web access to what it estimates are between 1.1 billion to 2.8 billion people.
The design team are optimistic that testing in the US will commence later this year as successful testing has already occurred in the UK.
This high-altitude solar-powered drone has the wingspan of a Boeing 737, but weighs only as much as a car due to its lightweight carbon fiber frame.
The Aquila will fly at between 60,000 to 90,000 feet during the day, far above what commercial airplanes do to avoid conventional weather patterns. At night, when the batteries aren’t being charged by the sun, the drone will fly at lower altitudes to save energy.
It will apparently also be able to fly for 90 days without landing. This is a very ambitious goal, considering that the world record thus far stands at about two weeks.
While in flight, it will project a laser to transmit data to other drones, as well as small towers and dishes on the ground within a 30-mile radius. The antennas will then convert the signal into WiFi or 4G networks.
One of the engineering challenges for a project of this magnitude is generating enough power to keep the drone airborne while still powering all its systems.
Yael Maguire, Facebook’s engineering director of connectivity, wants to take advantage of highly efficient semiconductors similar to the type used in the cellular industry. Doing this may allow Facebook to rotate its drones every 90 days to relieve operational drones for repair and maintenance while a new fleet would ascend moments after.
Engineers are currently testing the laser system in California.
The prototype can deliver 10 gigabits of data per second, which is much faster than what is considered “state-of-the-art” in today’s industry. That said, there is still a lot of work to be done. Maguire wrote in his blog: “We started the Connectivity Lab at Facebook to see if we could change this paradigm. We are developing a range of new technologies — including high-altitude aircraft, satellites, free space optics, and terrestrial solutions — to help accelerate the process of bringing connectivity to the unserved and underserved.”
Naturally, many eyebrows are being raised at the prospect of numerous drones circulating the skies, and perhaps Bill Gates summed it up best when he commented on Google’s Project Loon when he said, “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you.”
Regardless of which way you feel about it, one thing is abundantly clear.
Solar drones are coming to a sky near you…