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March 4, 2014updated 22 Sep 2016 11:09am

Drones vs Loons: The battle for mobile internet supremacy

Will Facebook’s drones and Google’s helium Wi-Fi balloons stick, or are they just a load of hot air?

By Ben Sullivan

It’s coming up towards 2pm, and a teacher is nervously checking her watch…seconds slowly ticking by. The Himalayan sun beats down onto a clear blue sky, but there’s still no sign of it. The next 10 minutes are crucial for the teacher’s class. It’s at 2pm when a new ‘download’ of work will arrive for the small, remote school 6,000 feet up in the mountain range. It’s also when she will find out news about the next food delivery, which is already two days late. It can’t be any later; it’s January and the children are hungry.

At 1.59pm she hears it. A low, buzz-like humming, which seems to emanate from the whole sky. A small, white plane-shaped speck appears way up in the sky, barely noticeable. It’s only now that her heart settles and she knows everything will be okay. The teacher opens her laptop, turns on the Wi-Fi and starts to connect to what appears on screen as a router. It’s named ‘Drone1’ and ‘Drone1’ just so happens to be the first of Facebook’s high flying drones that is bringing internet connections to some of the most remote areas on Earth. Zuckerberg has succeeded, Internet.org has revolutionised global internet connectivity and within seconds, February’s work assignments for the school have been downloaded onto the teacher’s laptop. An email arrives. It says the food delivery will arrive tomorrow. As Drone1 disappears out of sight, headed to the next Himalayan town, the teacher updates her Facebook status. She breathes a sigh of relief.

"TGIF, lol, what a day. Like if you agree!"


 

The above is all speculative fiction, of course, but for one man, this is exactly what he envisions. That man is Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. Zuckerberg has grand ambitions for Internet.org.

In the latest development, Facebook is said to be in acquisition discussions with a drone manufacturer called Titan Aerospace. Facebook reportedly wants to swallow it up for a cool $60m. Titan specialises in solar-powered drones which fly very high (20km) and can stay aloft for years at a time. Why? Well for one: this will all be part of Zuckerberg’s Internet.org ‘initiative’. It can be safely assumed that these drones would fly around (perhaps even autonomously) and deliver internet connections to the parts of the world that doesn’t have them (5 billion humans, says Zuckerberg).

titan

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It was only recently when Zuckerberg showed his face in Barcelona, at Mobile World Congress, and reiterated his philanthropic vision of providing the ever-necessary ‘human right’ of an internet connection (his words, not mine). He outlined further the coalition of Internet.org’s plans to connect the world, and where it would be used to smother huge areas of India, the Himalayas, and Africa amongst others, with a semi-decent Wi-Fi hook-up.

Zuckerberg is intrinsically all about connecting people, it’s the reason he gave for paying $19b for Whatsapp. "Few services in the world can reach one billion users," he shrugged. So the reported figure of eleven thousand (!) drones seem to be capable of just that.

Titan Aerospace was only founded in 2012, where a new type of drone was created, called the Atmostat. It carries out the job of a near-Earth satellite but at a tiny fraction of the cost of launching a satellite into orbit. Powered by the Sun, these drones can keep flying for up to five years. This is all still along way off though. Zuckerberg has said himself that he would spend a large amount of money on Internet.org without seeing any immediate return in the near future. But I guess if payment comes in the form of Facebook profiles…

At his MWC keynote, Zuckerberg said: "It’s easy to take for granted that most people have access to the internet, but only one third of the world, 2.7 billion people, currently have access to the internet," however, "we’re not on a path to connect everyone right now, unless something dramatic changes."

suckerberg

Credit: Guillaume Paumier, CC-BY

According to The Guardian, mobile internet data subscribers add up to 1.2 billion in developing nations, versus the 357m fixed broadband connections in the same countries. This is a 3:1 overlap, giving Facebook’s prospective drones a massive opportunity to increase the impact of their services in markets like Africa and India.

Of course, Facebook doesn’t have a monopoly with this idea, and the form of a technological competitor comes with Google. Ever heard of a Loon? Well, the idea may sound barmy but Google’s Project Loon is much like Internet.org, apart from Google’s cunning plan is to give out mobile Internet in developing countries via giant, high-soaring helium filled balloons.

 

On Sunday, if you went on any flight tracking website and looked just south east of New Zealand, you’d see 7 ‘unidentified’ objects which were in fact some test flights for Google’s Loon initiative. The Loons themselves are made of polyethylene plastic and are 15×12 metres in size. These guys actually fly at around 32km up, and will be able to create an aerial wireless network with ‘3G-like speeds’.

tracking

Credit: FlightRadar24/The Aviationist

"Project Loon began with a pilot test in June 2013, when thirty balloons were launched from New Zealand’s South Island and beamed Internet to a small group of pilot testers. The pilot test has since expanded to include a greater number of people over a wider area," says Google.

"Looking ahead, Project Loon will continue to expand the pilot through 2014, with the goal of establishing a ring of uninterrupted connectivity around the 40th southern parallel, so that pilot testers at this latitude can receive continuous service via balloon-powered Internet."

loooon

Unlike Facebook’s drone plans, the balloons are only meant to stay flying for around 100 days, but will work in unison with each other to create a sort of ‘network’ over a large area, providing mobile internet.

"Signals are transmitted from the balloons to a specialised Internet antenna mounted to the side of a home or workplace that use radio frequency technology.

"The Internet antenna is connected to a consumer grade router. Web traffic that travels through the balloon network is ultimately relayed to ground stations, where it’s connected to pre-existing Internet infrastructure, like fiber cables and our local telecommunications partners."

loonm2

Each ‘Loon’ can communicate with other Loons, never straying out of the network and away from users that need their service. The balloons are actually controllable from the ground. "Is it possible to have a nicely spaced out flock of balloons? The answer is yes. Once people could see this was possible, it became a feasible project, not some crazy science project," said Dan Piponi from Project Loon.

But what challenges do these internet ‘moonshots’ face? For one, let’s talk legality. You can be sure that countries such as North Korea, China and Russia will have a word or two to say about these American firms breathing out internet access so close to their borders, and almost definitely collecting data as they go along. There’s no actual agreement yet about the vertical height of a nation’s airspace. One benchmark used is the Karman line, which is widely suggested to be the ‘official’ boundary between earth and space, but that’s 62 miles high, much higher than the operating altitudes of either Facebook’s drones or Google’s Loons.

"What would Vladimir Putin think if he looked up to see an aircraft run by a US tech giant – one that occasionally shares data with the NSA, no less – dangling overhead? What if a few Loons had to take a rest stop over Pyongyang?" says Will Butler at The Atlantic. Neither firm has a good track record of keeping users’ data to themselves, and this makes these projects just as much about politics as about technology.

There’s also the issue of just how humanitarian these endeavours are. Purely philanthropic? Or a marketing expansion? Bill Gates has famously shot down Project Loon, saying that: "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. When a kid gets diarrhoea, no, there’s no website that relieves that."

Furthermore, could these projects be just another move in the expansion of global communications monitoring, an en-masse data harvesting exercise which no connected human could escape from? Don your foil hats, the Loons are coming.

 

llon2
Loon images credit: Google

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