Facebook's Broadband By Drones Latest In Very Long Line Of Unfulfilled Aerial Hype

from the hot-air dept

Apparently, if you just mention the word drones you're pretty much guaranteed a ton of press coverage, at least based on the reaction to Amazon's immensely unlikely (for most people) Amazon Prime Air R&D effort. It's unsurprising then to see Facebook receive a lot of attention for what may be an equally unlikely endeavor: delivering broadband to developing countries by drone as part of the company's developing world Internet.org initiative. Rumors have emerged that Facebook is in talks with drone maker Titan Aerospace, with the hope of beaming broadband to users from the stratosphere:
"Titan Aerospace says that its solar-powered drones are capable of staying in the air for five years at a time. And when used as a communication hub, Titan Aerospace says that a single drone could create a voice and data network with "the reach of over one hundred terrestrial cell towers."...Titan Aerospace's entire production would go toward Internet.org. The initial goal is reportedly to build 11,000 of its Solara 60 model drones for the initiative."
Each time one of these broadband by X (drone, plane, blimp, hot air balloon, goose) ideas gets proposed interest is greatly piqued, ignoring the long list of companies (Iridium, Globalstar, etc.) backed by heavy hitters (Bill Gates, Paul Allen) that have tried similar efforts but failed, often spectacularly. Like Sanswire Networks, for example, which pitched the deployment of "stratellites" for the better part of a decade to an unskeptical press without ever fielding a substantive product to show for it.

Please note that's not to say that we shouldn't try to dream about new solutions to old problems. It just seems like most of these efforts are driven by the false idea that you can simply skip the blood sweat and tears involved in building real networks in the real world and just arrive at connectivity magic, if your engineers are clever enough and your PR videos are sexy enough.

On one hand the appeal of developing a technology that flies above the status quo, monopoly markets and the heads of regulators is obvious. But this isn't the first alternative aerial broadband rodeo, and history is starting to gain weight from the number of these projects that failed from ballooning costs, tricky technology and unreasonable expectations. Though he almost buries his point underneath a clumsy and misguided swipe at "Libertarians," Iain Marlow at the Globe and Mail points out that these loud efforts to "fix" developing nations with our Western creativity just wind up being kind of stupid after a while:
"But every once in a while, international aid in the form of technology metastasizes into something particularly stupid – like Kony2012 – and the ideas gain outsized attention (and funds and credence) by playing on simplistic assumptions by people who know absolutely nothing about the situation on the ground. There are thousands of smart Africans already working in technology in Africa, and doing amazing things, and I don't hear many of them talking about balloons and drones (except those other sorts of drones)."
The point could be made that it makes sense to help those real world, blood, sweat and tear efforts to shore up traditional wireless communications networks, as opposed to throwing yet additional billions at new, slightly too clever technologies that often prove too costly to be viable for what they actually wind up offering. Also, giant drones tend to hurt when they fall out of the sky:
"Drones are much more likely to be able to maintain position. But both they and the balloons are going to get pushed around a lot by stratospheric winds, which can get up to 100 miles per hour."..."One danger I can think of is one of these drones falling into a populated area," says (Skycatch CEO Chris Sanz). At 165 feet wide and weighing in at 350 pounds, a Solara could do a lot of damage if it fell out of the sky."
You also have to wonder exactly which countries are horribly excited to have a permanent flock of drones doing lazy circles overhead in the wake of the NSA revelations. Again, not to say that research shouldn't be done in this important area, but at some point you have to wonder just how many boring, old cellular towers could have been built while we spend seemingly-unlimited billions and an ocean of manpower on proving not only that we care, but that we're so very, very clever.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 11th, 2014 @ 4:00pm

    If you want to stay over one spot on earth, without building a tower, you go all the way to geostationary orbit. That said serving high northern latitudes from geostationary is not possible, but other orbits are available to make satellites service reasonable. (only antarctic bases exist in high(low) southern lattitude, and they are HF radio can meet their bandwidth needs.)
    A drone, or balloon would be useful for emergency communications in areas devastated by some natural disaster, until enough of the land infrastructure is rebuilt to restore coverage.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
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    Mason Wheeler (profile), Mar 11th, 2014 @ 4:05pm

    It doesn't appear to be saying anything "clumsy and misguided" about libertarians in the linked article; the author got it spot-on.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 11th, 2014 @ 4:07pm

    Agree...Screw drones for this application.

    Mesh networks: Put cheap, solar powered routers* everywhere.

    I think that's what people in parts of Africa are doing anyway. Similar to them using cheap, mostly hand built solar power for their homes.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 11th, 2014 @ 4:17pm

    oh.... The American "class system"

    "libertarians"

    I honestly don't get the American definition for them. Most of them are far from liberal. Then again..."liberal" in America is messed up too. Bill Mayer is supposedly a liberal... Looks like a right wing authoritarian to me.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
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    Mason Wheeler (profile), Mar 11th, 2014 @ 5:47pm

    Re: oh.... The American "class system"

    The American definition basically means people who think that individual freedom is the end-all-be-all of existence, and any use of government power to actually do anything resembling governing is inherently evil and oppressive. They're the primary ideology behind the deregulation we've seen, in banking, in environmental issues, and in corporate governance in general, that's caused so many problems in the USA (and around the world in areas influenced by "US interests") in the last few decades.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 11th, 2014 @ 8:56pm

    "Each time one of these broadband by X (drone, plane, blimp, hot air balloon, goose) ideas gets proposed"

    Well, maybe they can use all the hot air from these bogus proposals to propel the drones upward.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 12th, 2014 @ 1:40am

    "Libertarians"

    Strange that the part of the political spectrum that is so anti-government that they almost seem to be advocating a society based purely on survival of the fittest, are often the same crowd who don't believe in evolution.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
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    Ninja (profile), Mar 12th, 2014 @ 3:22am

    Tacocopters or no deal. Internet is not nearly that important.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 12th, 2014 @ 4:25am

    Re: "Libertarians"

    Just as interesting is the crowd that believes in evolution but wants to regulate it away so that the weak take from the strong.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
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    Rajan, Mar 12th, 2014 @ 6:05am

    What if this is some sort of invading privacy with drones. Spying?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
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    webcat, Mar 12th, 2014 @ 6:51am

    Real need

    I am sure people in africa are hurting for facebook access. use the f#$%ing money to provide food, clear water, medicine , education.

    No body in africa gives a hoot about facebook and google.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
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    shedly@comcast.net (profile), Mar 12th, 2014 @ 7:15am

    Use existing infrastructure

    At any given time thousands of aircraft are already over our heads. Placing routing hardware on each commercial flight could provide the web coverage we need for breaking the ISP monopoly.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 12th, 2014 @ 8:51am

    Re: oh.... The American "class system"

    The classic definition of "libertarian" is "a conservative who like to get high."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 12th, 2014 @ 8:53am

    Re: "Libertarians"

    Excepting for true anarchists, there is no group in the political arena who actually wants limited government.

    What they all want is for government to be limited from doing the things they don't like, but empowered to do more of the things they do like.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 12th, 2014 @ 8:55am

    Re: Re: "Libertarians"

    That's not how evolution works. It's not some kind of moral imperative and you can't "legislate it away." It's also not about the "weak vs the strong" in the sense that you are implying.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
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    Pragmatic, Mar 14th, 2014 @ 6:34am

    Re: Re: oh.... The American "class system"

    Voted funny.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    identicon
    Pragmatic, Mar 14th, 2014 @ 6:39am

    Re: Re: "Libertarians"

    The weak take from the strong? Surely you jest.

    What we've got now is approaching economic slavery, sharecropper-style. And I bet you see those pesky sharecroppers as "taking from the strong."

    Okay, I'll bite. If jobs and wages are property, so is labor. In a free market situation either side could withhold their property to exchange it at a higher value.

    If that's the case, why do you fear and loathe unions? Are they not withholding labor to exchange it for jobs and wages at a higher value?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    Pragmatic, Mar 14th, 2014 @ 6:39am

    Re: Re: "Libertarians"

    ^This.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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