Whenever a new, futuristic advancement in technology makes the news, I like to make the joke that we are now living in the future. More specifically, when bionic eyes and limbs are being invented, when we use ultrasound casts to help people heal faster or grow new skin with sprayable stem cells, when more and more homes have 3D printers, when drone racing has become a thing, then our lives are starting to resemble sci-fi novels. And now, another step forward is being taken: Internet from the sky.
Facebook recently completed its first solar-powered drone designed to provide internet access to rural and remote areas that would be otherwise cut off. Via Alex Hern of The Guardian, the project, "code-named 'Aquila,' ... will be able to fly without landing for three months at a time, using a laser to beam data to a base station on the ground." Multiple, simultaneously flying drones will be continuously linked, and Facebook will partner with local ISPs to provide internet coverage to large areas.
According to Hern, the craft weighs less than a car, yet has the wingspan of a commercial airliner. It will float between 60,000 and 90,000 feet, above interference from weather or air traffic. Testing on the project will begin in the next few months.
Facebook's drone initiative lags behind Google's own 'Loon' project, which aims to do the same thing, except with high-altitude balloons instead of drones. The project is outlined in the video below.
Google's been working on this project since 2013. According to Ben Popper at The Verge, Google's balloons stay up in the air for six months at a time, which is twice as long as Facebook's drones, and are also cheaper to make and replace.
Both projects have their ups and downs (heh). Facebook's drones are matched with their Internet.org project which provides internet access to rural populations, and has been criticized because the basic internet it provides only gives access to a limited number of websites, including Facebook, but very tellingly not including Google or Twitter. Google's balloons are agnostic, and provide access without restriction. But, unlike Facebook's drones, Google's balloons only have control over their altitude, and are more subject to prevailing winds, unlike a pilotable drone.
Living in the future means that the consequences of new technology, economic, legal, or social, may be coming faster than we can adjust to or prepare for them, and there's something ominous about companies with billions of dollars at their disposal wit a commercial interest in controlling the technology we all may be depending on in the future. The dream of the internet is that everyone can have access to the world's information, with no restrictions. I think it is important that, as altruistic as these projects may seem, we stay true to the dream.