Remember those rumors that Facebook is planning to use drones to deliver Internet connectivity to the unconnected?
Turns out it’s true.
Last Friday, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook Connectivity Lab, a project under the auspices of Internet.org with the goal of developing solutions leveraging satellites, free-space optics (FSO) and – yes – drones to deliver internet connectivity to “two thirds of the world’s population that doesn’t have it.”
Of the three technologies cited, drones are the most novel element, not least because most people think of drones as government tools for surveillance and assassinations.
But drones can also be used as airborne datacomms platforms. Companies like Titan Aerospace and Ascenta have developed solar-powered drones that can stay aloft for months or even years at a time – so why not outfit them with FSO gear or microwave?
Titan (which Facebook was rumored to be attempting to buy earlier this month) isn’t involved with Connectivity Lab, but Ascenta is, as are researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s Ames Research Center, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.
The idea is to develop different airborne connectivity solutions to suit different regions. In the case of drones, they could serve “suburban areas in limited geographical regions”, for example, while lower-density areas could be better served by LEO and GEOsats.
The drone angle has inevitably drawn comparisons to Google’s Project Loon, which aims to connect the unconnected using weather balloons. Without naming names, Zuckerberg said in a white paper describing the Connectivity Lab project [PDF] that drones have a number of advantages over balloons: namely, they’re easier to control and they can stay aloft longer (Project Loon estimates that its balloons have a lifespan of 100 days.)
That said, Zuckerberg also outlined the challenges involved in such a plan – the most notable weak spot being FSO, which essentially uses infrared lasers to transmit data:
The narrow optical beams are hard to orient correctly and need to be pointed very precisely. The level of accuracy required is the equivalent of needing to hit a dime from 10 miles away, or hit the statue of liberty from California. Laser systems also require line of sight between both ends of the laser link, meaning that they don’t work through clouds and are very vulnerable to bad weather conditions. As a result, backup radio systems are needed.
There’s another challenge Connectivity Lab will face, and it’s the same one that Project Loon faces: regulatory hurdles.
Project Loon’s model is to have a network of balloons drifting around the stratosphere, which raises all kinds of political and regulatory issues as they cross different countries. Even though drones are more controllable, and could stay within a given country’s borders, Facebook will have its work cut out for it getting permission to fly them, let alone offer internet connections with them (though that may be where local partners come in).
It’s easy to write such projects off as unviable. But it’s worth remembering that Zuckerberg has made clear his intention to work with Internet.org to make internet connectivity a free basic service for everyone. Google has similar ambitions, and it’s not hard to understand why. They’ve got the will, the capital and the clout to press forward with such projects. So they’re worth taking seriously.