Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of many people working fiercely on making Internet access a universal resource no matter where you are in the world. Rather than tackle the numerous challenges of regulation and infrastructure, say for providing wired broadband to a remote African village, the vision is to use solar-powered Internet-connected drones to beam data from servers to their recipients.
Yael Maguire, engineering director of Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, said during the Social Good Summit in New York City on Monday that “we’re going to have to push the edge of solar technology, battery technology, [and] composite technology.” The concept of drone-as-Internet-service-provider is sound -- consider that Google is already using high-tech weather balloons to deliver Internet to people on the ground -- there are still some challenges to be overcome.
Facebook’s drones will have to fly in a high-altitude regulatory gray area for months (or even years) at a time while providing constant connectivity to people on the ground. At 60,000 to 90,000 feet in the air, the aircraft would be flying above commercial airspace, even the weather.
While it might sound overambitious to keep an aircraft aloft for that long, consider that an unmanned solar-powered aircraft called the Zephyr successfully stayed in flight for two weeks, handily beating previous unmanned flight duration records. QinetiQ, the U.K. company behind the plane, only landed the vehicle because “there was nothing left to prove.” They had effectively built the world’s first “eternal plane.”
The regulatory issues are another matter. Consider how nebulous the laws for even lightweight commercial drone use currently are. Real estate agents who use readily bought drones such as the DJI Phantom are considered to be pushing the legal limits of such devices. Before we can expect regulators to get on board with large unmanned aircraft flying at astronomical altitudes, we need more clearly defined rules for the lowly real estate agent simply looking for a unique way to market a property. It’s best to solve small-scale problems before tackling big ones.
Despite challenges of technology and regulation, Maguire says Facebook’s aircraft will be ready for testing next year. To be clear, the aircraft won't be operated by Facebook personnel, but instead by partners in area government or business. Maguire calls worldwide connectivity “the problem of our generation,” but with aggressive efforts like these from Facebook and Google, it may be solved in a matter of decades.