Google and Facebook aren't the only ones trying to beam down connectivity from the sky: DARPA, the US Defense Department's advanced research agency, is trying to turn drones into hotspots for high-speed wireless networks, and it recently completed an initial testing and development phase on a program that's working toward that goal. The program's first major developments were in the creation of steerable antennas and efficient radio amplifiers to use in the hotspots. DARPA also created a housing for the hotspots, which will eventually be mounted on drones that have traditionally been used for surveillance.
"We’re pleased with the technical achievements we’ve seen so far."
DARPA's hope is to have the hotspot's communication speeds rival those of a common 4G cell network, eventually allowing the drones to easily extend connectivity into remote locations where the military may be otherwise unable to access intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data. The hotspot program began back in 2012 and entered its second phase last month, during which DARPA will begin to integrate the wireless radios onto ground vehicles. The hotspots will eventually be tested on a network of multiple drones in the third and final phase.
During the second phase's ground tests, DARPA will be using LTE to facilitate network access. Back in 2012, DARPA said that it expected to take advantage of commercial technologies, such as Wi-Fi, WiMax, or LTE, for use on the hotspots, though the hotspots are being designed to be compatible with military protocols too. "We’re pleased with the technical achievements we’ve seen so far," DARPA program manager Dick Ridgway says in a statement, referring to the program's work on antennas and amplifiers. Though DARPA clearly has a far different goal than Google and Facebook, their similar ideas suggest that this type of project could become an increasingly easy one to get off the ground.
Update April 17th, 10:49AM ET: DARPA tells The Verge that the hotspots will be using LTE during phase two demonstrations. This article has been modified to include the information.