Last year, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook surprised many when it revealed that it joined forces with other major tech companies to bring internet access to the two-thirds of the world that's offline. But what's really surprising is how they plan to do it. Today, Facebook confirmed rumors that engineers are working on developing a fleet of solar-powered drones that can beam internet access down to people in remote regions of the world.
According to today's announcement from Internet.org — the organization that Facebook, Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung, and others joined last year to help spread internet access — the drones would fly autonomously for months at a time at an altitude of 20,000 meters (roughly 65,000 feet). That's well above commercial airspace, and it's a good spot for the drones because it reduces risks that winds and weather will interfere with flight.
It may sound crazy, but scientists have already made similar solar-powered planes. One, called Solar Impulse, flew nearly 1,000 miles on a single trip, and it's capable of infinite gas mileage. It uses solar panels to charge up during the day, and battery keep it flying at night.
To solve the challenges that face the project, Facebook has hired aerospace experts from Ascenta, a company that's built solar-powered drones, as well as others from NASA. It was previously rumored that Facebook acquired another drone company, called Titan Aerospace, but it seems that the talent attached to this project comes from elsewhere.
Team hopes to use lasers for high-speed communications between the drones
The team is working on coming up with a way to improve data communications through the air. They're developing what's known as free-space optical communication (FSO), and hope to use lasers to send messages between the drones and the ground. If they pull it off, the tech could offer speeds comparable to fiber optic cables. It's not all about drones though. The organization says that in very low density areas, it's working to introduce satellite-based internet that uses the same FSO technology for communication.
Bringing internet connectivity to remote regions has long been difficult. The major issue is cost effectiveness: it usually takes land rights and construction to connect an area, and many spots don't have enough users to justify the cost. That's one of the issues that Internet.org and others, like Google through its balloon-based Loon program, are trying to solve. If they can pull it off, the two-thirds of the world without the internet might finally come online.