As Facebook quits low-orbit internet, other companies continue their efforts

End of Project Aquila doesn’t mean remote areas won’t get internet access.

In June Facebook announced it was killing off Project Aquila, its idea to bring internet connectivity to the masses via massive solar-powered drones. But the social network is far from the only company investing and developing in such technology.

A whole host of companies – from well-funded startups to billion-dollar conglomerates – are spending big in technology that can provide internet coverage to areas currently lacking any real sort of telecoms coverage.


Bye bye Project Aquila

The plan – alongside the likes of Facebook Basics, Facebook Zero, and Telecom Infra – was to provide internet access to the 3 billion people worldwide currently unconnected. The concept was to have a network of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) provide internet coverage to remote areas by pinging communication signals from a base station via a mesh network, thus providing coverage to areas where traditional telecoms infrastructure isn’t viable or cost-effective.

Initially launched in 2014, Aquila’s first flight -- and first crash – were on the same day in 2016. Although there was single successful flights in 2017 and the company managed to achieve 40 Gbps connectivity over a distance of 7km away using millimeter-wave (MMW) technology,  the announcement of a partnership with Airbus later in the year was the beginning of the end for the project.

In June Facebook announced that it was shutting down its Aquila project and would instead leave development to the aerospace giants.

“To increase our chances of success we took on every part of our aircraft’s design, development, and testing,” said FB’s director of engineering Yael Maguire. “It’s been exciting to see leading companies in the aerospace industry start investing in this technology too — including the design and construction of new high-altitude aircraft.”

“Given these developments, we’ve decided not to design or build our own aircraft any longer, and to close our facility in Bridgwater. Going forward, we’ll continue to work with partners like Airbus.”

But despite the social network’s retreat, many other manufacturers are forging ahead with developing high-altitude platform that can provide communication capabilities to the world’s remotest and underserved regions.


High Altitude Platforms (HAPs) live on

The market for High Altitude Platforms (HAPs) – devices which fly in the stratosphere some 60,000ft above the Earth, thus avoiding weather and commercial aviation – is predicted to be an industry worth between $1.7 billion and $5.2 billion over the next five to ten years, with telecoms one of the main commercial use cases.

“Programs meant to develop HAPs for commercial use have been on the horizon since the early 1990’s, and most never materialized,” said Siddharth Shihora, NSR Analyst. “The current HAPs wave is better-equipped to fund R&D and develop the market for these innovative platforms.”

One of the leaders in the field is Airbus. Its Zephyr platform has been in development since 2001, having started life inside QinetiQ before it was bought by the European aerospace company. At the launch of the new production facility outside London this month, CEO Airbus Defence and Space Dirk Hoke said the latest version of Zephyr was “demonstrably years ahead of any other comparable system”.

The solar-powered UAV flies at an altitude of around 65,000 ft, and the company claims it will be able to fly autonomously for months. Able to carry different payloads such as hi-resolution cameras and various sensors, the main non-military use case is around communications.

Sophie Thomas, Zephyr program manager at Airbus, told IDG Connect there had been “huge commercial interest” in Zephyr, especially around delivering broadband.

Thomas acknowledged Airbus was currently collaborating with Facebook and that the development of Zephyr and Aquila were entirely separate. She refused to comment about the Aquila project specifically.

It’s easy to see why Facebook ditched its own project if it was trying to compete with well-funded aerospace experts. Where Aquila had a wingspan equal to that of a Boeing 737 and weighed in at around 400kg, the current model of the Zephyr is smaller and weighs less than a quarter of the Aquila before payloads are attached. Where Facebook’s drone had its two flights measured in hours, the Zephyr holds the current record for longest continuous UAV flight – 14 days – and the company estimates it could fly for up to 100 days consecutively using current battery technology.


High altitude Balloons and airships provide alternative to drones

There are over 40 different HAPs projects currently in development, from aerospace giants to startups funded by Softbank.

UK defense giant BAE is currently working on a similar platform. The PHASA-35, developed in conjunction with Prismatic, is another high-altitude solar-powered drone that could be used for communication purposes. The company says it has a 35-metre wingspan and weigh 150kg and able to fly for up to 12 months continuously and be ready for flight tests in 2019.

France’s Thales, meanwhile, is opting for static unmanned airships. The company’s static airship Stratobus has been in development since at least 2014, weigh nearly seven metric tons and measure 115 meters long and 34 meters in diameter. Aiming to make them capable of 5-year missions with annual servicing, the company plans to make them available in 2020 or 2021.

Google is another company looking to bring high altitude internet to remote areas. Though the company did have an interest in solar-powered drones, its Titan drone project was closed down last year and is instead focusing its efforts on balloons.

Started in 2014, Loon uses a network of high-altitude balloons to provide internet connectivity – reportedly LTE/4G -- to users in remote areas. While the name and concept was interesting, it wasn’t until the balloons were used to reconnect some 100,000 Puerto Ricans in the wake of Hurricane Maria that the world saw how well the project could work.


Is there demand for high altitude delivered broadband?

While technology and aerospace firms will no doubt be keen to push the shiniest new toys, is there much interest from the connectivity providers themselves?

Ezhirpavai Pavai, Vice President of Technology at design and engineering company Aricent told IDG Connect such technologies were “not economically efficient” compared to terrestrial base stations and their deployment niche, but low-altitude drones could provide useful in certain situations. UK network EE is using low-altitude UAVs to provide connectivity in rural areas of the country and during emergency situations.

Leigh Smith, MD of World Telecom Labs – which provides rural connectivity solutions for regions such as Africa and is part of Facebook’s Telecom Infra project – says that the HAPS proposition is very similar to current satellite technology but with slightly lowers costs and latency.

“Understandably the focus is normally on the cost of the satellite itself and its launch but there is also a big investment in their management and the ground systems to enable them to function – a whole ecosystem which will need to be created for HAPS,” he says.

“I would worry about the sustainability of HAPS. One of the advantages of satellites is that they are used for many different purposes so their business case does not stand or fall on rural connectivity alone. If HAPS end up offering cheaper, more universal backhaul of the IP traffic from our low-cost cells we will happily embrace it but there is still a lot further to go to fix the overall picture.”

Despite the reticence, the technology seems to be on the edge of commercialization. The project recently graduated from Alphabet’s skunkworks X lab into its own business unit and announced that it was partnering with Telkom Kenya and will be deploying balloons across central Kenya in 2019.

“This is a first for all of us, and over the coming months we will collaborate on the technical, operational, and other work needed to expand Telkom’s network to more people in Kenya,” said Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth in the announcement.

“Our path to success as a company is through providing value to mobile network partners like Telkom Kenya and helping them extend their reach to places where ground-based infrastructure can’t go. At the end of the day, Loon is providing an infrastructure solution — it just happens to be 60,000 feet in the air, on the edge of space.”



Also read:

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The race to connect Africa through satellite technology

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