With more than 1.2 billion users worldwide, Facebook might be expected to sit back and rest on its achievements, but in recent months, the social media giant has taken some surprising actions to extend its dominance. One of the most intriguing is its failed bid to purchase Titan Aerospace, a drone manufacturer, which was eventually scooped up by Google. Facebook went on to purchase another drone company, Ascenta. Facebook has also partnered with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ames Research Center, as well as the National Optical Astronomy Observatory to help develop a fleet of long-flying, solar-powered drones which can provide internet connectivity to much of the unconnected world.
Although drones alone will not provide the internet to the whole globe, they will be critical for such services in suburban and urban areas where usage is high. The projected drones should fly at a height of 20,000 meters above the earth’s surface. These solar powered drones should be able to remain aloft for months at a time. These automated aircraft would communicate with control stations and with one another via a powerful laser communications system. This high density information system may also be utilized to provide internet connections.
While drones would provide some key advantages in urban environments, in more sparsely populated areas, Facebook intends to deploy satellites. There are already a number of premier satellite internet services like MyBlueDIsh, which provide high speed internet connectivity, and which Facebook will likely model their service upon.Services like MyBlueDish already rival or exceed the quality of many land-based systems. There is a stark difference between Facebook’s satellites and those of current services like MyBlueDish; while most existing services use geosynchronous-i.e. fixed over a point-satellites, Facebook would use a network of orbiting satellites that provide connectivity in tandem.
It remains difficult to compare drones to satellites due to the immaturity of these drone projects. There are a number of issues which already present challenges. The first, of course, is the question of sustainability; can a fleet of drones be maintained aloft indefinitely and at what cost? There are also issues with distribution of signals to so many people. Facebook has yet to work out the details of how users would obtain signals from satellites that sweep across any given location at immense speeds.
There are some obvious advantages for drones as well. While these aircraft are likely to be expensive, they will still be cheaper than satellites. They are also easily replaced and repaired should they become defective-although this begs the question of safety in urban settings. A final advantage of drones is that they are more easily controlled and maneuvered than satellites.
These remain engineering challenges which are likely to be solved in due time. What may be more relevant is the social consequences of a global network. While Facebook and Google have strong financial incentives (more internet users will alleviate their profits), they also believe that the free flow of information is inherently beneficial for communities in emerging markets.
This is probably true. One of the most powerful examples of online political movements is the Arab Spring which toppled many Middle Eastern governments following online activism. The internet is also likely to spur economic development as well. Not only will consumers have more choices, but they will have more access to information to support those choices.
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