The most extensive and fabulous of all modern telecommunication projects promise an available connection to the M Irova network of hundreds of thousands of people in remote corners of the planet.

Who has access to the Internet now

In 2017, just over half of the people on the planet had access to the Internet. According to Internet World Stat, the largest number of Internet users in relation to the region’s population is concentrated in Europe and North America (80.2% and 88.1%, respectively), while the lowest rates are in Asia and Africa (46.7% and 31.2%). These areas are characterized by low living standards, difficult terrain and underdeveloped telecommunications infrastructure.

For these places, satellite is the only way to connect to the Internet, but it is still expensive. Too expensive for people in developing countries. While Elon Musk, who heads the private space corporation SpaceX, hatches plans to create a new satellite network that will make the service available, major market players are testing new ways to expand their Internet infrastructure.

Hovering Repeaters – Project Loon

Project Loon is the brainchild of Alphabet Inc., a holding company that includes Google. The idea that originated in the experimental laboratory “X” can hardly be called anything other than an ambitious idea. Engineers closely associated with Google propose deploying wireless networks over gigantic territories without the need for permanent ground infrastructure and expensive communication lines. The essence of the project is encrypted in the name derived from the English “balloon” – a balloon, aerostat.

Since 2013, Google engineers have been planning to “deliver” the Internet to users using transmitters installed on high-altitude balloons. The balls developed by them with a diameter of 15 and a height of 12 meters rise to a height of 18 to 25 kilometers into the upper atmosphere, where neither birds nor airplanes fly, but the wind is constantly blowing.

The stratosphere is multi-layered, and the air currents at different altitudes differ greatly in speed and direction. In addition, they are fairly stable and predictable. Google is learning to use this property of the stratosphere to control telecommunication balloons.

None of the Project Loon balloons have an engine. Most of the balloon is filled with helium, but by pumping air into the second reservoir, the balloon is able to adjust flight altitude and move between air currents in search of a favorable wind.

Each Project Loon aircraft carries solar panels, batteries sufficient to power the onboard electronics at night, transceivers for communication with the ground and other balloons, and a parachute in case of failure. All of these components are protected from solar radiation and low temperatures.

Laboratory X expects to fly thousands of transmitters. Together they form a communication network in which balloons in the vicinity of a ground base station transmit a signal to a subscriber in a chain. So, according to the company’s calculations, by connecting balloons to a base station in a relatively prosperous region of Africa, such as Johannesburg, Project Loon will be able to deploy a wireless network across most of the continent.

If during the first experiments it took about 12 hours to launch the balloon, despite the fact that he spent no more than a few days in the air, now, with the help of a mobile launcher, consisting of a 16-meter crane and several windshields, engineers launch one at a time a ball every 30 minutes. The non-stop flight time of the Project Loon balloon has increased to 100 days. Moreover, Google expects to extend the life of the ball.

For a long time, the main problem of the project was considered to be the impossibility of organizing a uniform distribution of balloons with repeaters over the territory that needs an Internet connection, but laboratory “X” proved that this is quite realistic.

Project Loon balloons have already passed the “baptism of fire”. In May 2017, they were used to restore communication after the floods in Peru, and the balloons provided communication even in areas of the country where there was no signal even before the flood.

In October 2017, people from Google repeated a similar operation to restore connectivity after the hurricane in Puerto Rico. Thanks to Project Loon, more than one hundred thousand residents of the country have gained access to the Web. The balloons arrived with a tailwind from a launch pad in Nevada, 5,000 kilometers from Puerto Rico.

Residents of the flood-affected country received LTE communication, but with a number of restrictions. The network allowed sending SMS and connecting to the Internet at a reduced speed, but did not support voice calls. However, this was due to the fact that the surviving towers of local telecom operators had to be used as base stations. Balloons deployed in less extreme conditions will provide communication speeds equivalent to conventional cellular networks. Ideally, no need for additional antennas on the ground.

Make the world more open – Aquila

The rival project is owned by Facebook. The social network also relies on the delivery of transmitters by air, but Mark Zuckerberg’s company does not rely on balloons, but on unmanned aerial vehicles of the aircraft type. The details of the project are as impressive as the Project Loon initiative.

UAV Aquila, “eagle” in Latin, has a wingspan of a Boeing 737, 34 meters, but weighs about 450 kilograms. The ultra-light drone’s fuselage is made of foam wrapped in multi-layer carbon fiber. The resulting material is three times stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum. Most of the mass of the device falls not on the body or electronics, but on the onboard batteries. They are designed to provide the apparatus with energy for 14 hours.

During the day, Aquila has to climb 28 kilometers to recharge its batteries, and at night, to save energy, slowly glide to an altitude of 18 kilometers. This strategy limits the drone’s daily power consumption to approximately 5,000 watts, which is the equivalent of, for example, three powerful hair dryers.

As with Project Loon, a ground base station will provide wireless connectivity. Its signal will be transmitted from drone to drone until it reaches the subscriber. However, the very way of disseminating information, which is developing Facebook, today turns out to be advanced. The technology is called Free Space Optics (FSO) – atmospheric optical communication line. It is about using secure infrared lasers and optical receivers for signal transmission. Like fiber optic, only without wires.

Creating a laser telecommunications network between airborne drones is not a trivial task, but Facebook claims that it has already achieved laser focusing accuracy sufficient to hit the coin from a distance of more than 17 kilometers.

The complications are justified because lasers can exceed the data transfer rates of conventional radio transmitters by orders of magnitude. Various sources give figures ranging from 10 to 30 megabits per second.

But the system also has disadvantages. Subscribers will need special receiving stations. Communication only works in line-of-sight conditions, and the stability of the FSO connection is dependent on weather conditions. Clouds and fog can interfere with data transfer. Apparently, for this reason, the drones are also planned to be equipped with LTE and Wi-Fi transmitters.

Facebook is creating an entirely new channel of communication, so it should come as no surprise that the company’s engineers have lagged behind Lab X, which relies on common and proven technology so far. The creators of Aquila still have a number of problems to solve.

So, the aircraft scheme imposes severe restrictions on the weight of the unmanned aerial vehicle. The optimal balance between vehicle payload, on-board battery capacity and electronics power consumption remains to be found in the testing process. Since the Aquila has a large airframe area, the drone is more prone to turbulence than Google balloons and, of course, it holds less altitude. The wing needs to be improved, it should withstand the loads that arise in flight as best as possible.

It was the combination of lightness of construction and strong wind that led to the accident that ended the first flight of Aquila in June 2016. It took place in automatic mode and lasted an hour and a half. The UAV did not rise above 700 meters, but it still suffered from the wind, which disrupted the landing procedure and led to damage to the wing.

After investigating the incident, the drone took off again only in May 2017 and this time was tested without incident. The maximum flight altitude increased to one kilometer. It should be noted that so far we are only talking about testing the airframe. Facebook has not yet tried to transmit information from the UAV to the ground via an optical communication channel. So the timing of implementation is estimated carefully and very roughly. While we are talking about the period from 2020 to 2022.

Who is the future for?

Alphabet aims to provide basic Internet access worldwide as quickly as possible, while Facebook’s idea, although more complex to implement, has the potential to bring broadband Internet access to the most remote corners of the world.

The interest of companies in launching repeater antennas into the air is not at all selfless. Internet giants are fighting for a new audience for their services, like any other market participants, only their initiatives to match the scale of companies are global.

It doesn’t really matter whose technology is the first to become commercially viable and economically viable. Both projects are critical for residents of regions where the Internet is not available, and have the potential to benefit all of humanity.


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