There was an understandable amount of skepticism when Amazon announced its grand plans for delivery drones last year. But if the last twelve months are any indication, Jeff Bezos and his fellow tech heavyweights are actually kinda serious about the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles. Speaking at the Social Good Summit in New York on Monday, engineering director at Facebook Connectivity Lab, Yael Maguire, has further detailed the company's vision of internet-carrying drones, with plans to begin testing in 2015.
Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook's Connectivity Lab and its partnership with the Internet.org project in March this year. The initiative ultimately seeks to use solar-powered UAVs to beam internet down to the two thirds of the global population who aren't yet connected. But to achieve this, Facebook's Connectivity Lab and other Internet.org partners must first develop solar-powered aircraft with the ability to fly at high altitudes for long periods of time.
There was word of Facebook snapping up Titan Aerospace, a drone company whose unmanned aerial vehicles are designed to fly for five years at a time. These plans were short-lived, however, with Google reportedly topping Facebook's offer and leading Zuckerberg to instead acquire Ascenta, a UK-based company also working away at solar-powered UAVs. With these tech giants jostling for position, Facebook has been tight-lipped on its progress so far.
Maguire, in conversation with Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore, likened the vehicles to planes rather than drones, a word that does carry some negative connotations. He says the aircraft would be around the size of a commercial aircraft – about six or seven times the length of a Toyota Prius, while weighing the same as just four tires.
"In order for us to fly these planes — unmanned planes that have to fly for months, or perhaps years at a time — we actually have to fly above the weather, above all airspace," Maguire said. "That's between 60,000 and 90,000 feet. Routinely, planes don't fly there, and certainly not drones."
These altitudes would put Facebook's UAVs in the same space as Google's Project Loon, a fleet of internet-enabled balloons also designed to provide connectivity to remote areas. Coincidentally, whether it be the all-embracing forces of technological advancement or a timely PR move, head of the Google X research lab Astro Teller announced today that the Loon balloons will also take to the skies within the next year.
Project Loon would entail a network of balloons around 20 km (12.4 mi) above the surface of the Earth. Fitted with solar panels, the balloons when inflated measure 15 x 12 m (49 x 39 ft) and carry a set of communication instruments in a box underneath. Google has tested the technology in pilot programs in New Zealand, California and Brazil and now, according to Teller, should soon have enough balloons in the air to demonstrate that the idea is feasible.
"In the next year or so we should have a semi-permanent ring of balloons somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere," he claimed, speaking today at MIT Technology Review's EmTech conference.
So whether unmanned aircraft or floating networks hold the key to a worldwide internet, it's more than just Google's high-tech balloons that are starting to heat up. The value of bringing billions of new users online is plain to see, and means there's plenty at stake for all concerned. As for when this might actually occur, Maguire is hopeful that following testing in 2015, Facebook's drone-delivered internet could become a reality in three to five years.