According to The Guardian, Google is testing solar-powered drones to provide high-speed internet from the air, as part of a project called SkyBender.
The project aims at delivering 5G internet. This internet technology has the potential of being 40 times as fast as its predecessor 4G, transferring gigabits of data every second. Another benefit of this technology is that it should dramatically reduce latency compared to 4G, supporting the development of self-driving cars by enabling them to communicate with each other almost instantly.
The tests are run in New Mexico, where Google rents a facility from private space travel company Virgin Galactic. At this site, the tech firm has been flying with, among other planes, several solar-powered drones made by Google Titan. This division was founded after Google acquired Titan Aerospace in 2014, which worked on high-altitude, solar-powered drones with wingspans up to 50 meters.
This is all part of a broader movement, both within and outside Google, to find new ways of providing internet, especially in remote places and less-developed countries that were, till now at least, faced with very poor internet connectivity or no connectivity at all. Google itself is also employing other means, such as balloons, for offering universally accessible internet, and is in company of other tech firms, like Facebook, that are trying to achieve the same.
For delivering this next generation of internet, Google makes use of millimeter-wave radio transmissions. At a reported frequency of 28GHz, the great benefit of applying this technology is that there is little interference by other digital traffic. This is because the frequency is much less used than the overcrowded frequencies via which most cellphones currently communicate. A huge drawback on the other hand, is that the signal fades out much quicker than the 4G signal does. In order to make it work, Google experiments with focused transmission from what is called a phased array. The problem with this technique however, is that it is rather power consuming. Whether it will be possible to exploit this specific method to broadcast 5G internet on a solar-powered drone is therefore not yet clear.
Whether our future hyperfast internet will be provided by balloons, drones, or old-school radio masts remains to be seen, and we will probably not see a lot of solar-powered aircrafts flying around in the very near future. But as the efficiency of solar panels keeps increasing and several experiments with solar-powered aviation are being done, we are moving closer to making this happen in the longer run.
by Rogier van Rooij