Facebook wants to fill the sky with drones. An even though you’ll probably never see them, they will provide an important — although not exactly uncontroversial — service to the planet.
Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published a white paper, titled “Connecting the World from the Sky,” at Internet.org, a nonprofit established to increase Internet access globally. The organisation believes that a connected world is, to borrow a favourite Zuckerberg phrase, more “free and open.”
But there’s a problem: Although much of the developed world has abundant Internet access through a variety of technologies, much of the developing world doesn’t.
Enter Facebook, to provide the connectivity that isn’t there.
“Connecting the world is one of the fundamental challenges of our time,” Zuckerberg writes. “When people have access to the Internet, they can not only connect with their friends, family and communities, but they can also gain access to the tools and information to help find jobs, start businesses, access healthcare, education and financial services, and have a greater say in their societies. They get to participate in the knowledge economy.”
THE INVISIBLE PLATFORM
Most of us get our Internet through the well-established online infrastructure that exists in the developed world. Telecommunications giants, cable companies, and wireless networks maintain the pipes that allow us to search Wikipedia, post photos to Instagram, pay our bills, apply for mortgages, buy snow tires, do our taxes, tweet, start businesses, click on cute animal photos, play video games, and update our Facebook status.
Still, as Zuckerberg points out, “Today, only around 2.7 billion people have access to the Internet — just a little more than a third of the world’s population.”
The growth rate for that access is 9% — not enough, in Zuckerberg’s view. “If we want to connect the world, we have to accelerate that growth.”
This is where drones — or “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs) as they’re officially defined — come in. Facebook’s Connectivity Lab is actively developing large — but inexpensive — solar powered drones that will be able to fly not for days, not for months, but for years.
Facebook’s Connectivity Lab is actively developing large — but inexpensive — solar powered drones that will be able to fly not for days, not for months, but for years.
They will be cheap to build and, once launched, practically free to operate. And unlike a drone concept under development by Amazon, intended to provide delivery services (“Prime Air”), Facebook’s drones will fly so high that they will be effectively invisible.
This is because the best operating environment for drones that need to stay aloft for a long time is 65,000 feet. That’s a lot higher that commercial aircraft typically fly. But it’s signifcantly below the space occupied by low-orbit satellites.
In a video created by Internet.org, Facebook’s Yael Maguire explains the challenges involved with making this happen.
Satellites are better at supplying Internet access to places where there aren’t a lot people…
…but drones are better when there are more people living in a given area that’s underserved for Internet access.
It’s a sweet spot for delivering Internet access to “a city-sized area of territory with a medium population density,” according to Zuckerberg. As a bonus, bad weather and turbulence at this altitude won’t bounce drones around. The invisible platform would be stable and reliable.
Unlike a competing idea from Google, which Zuckerberg subtly criticises: Balloons. They’re harder to control than drone, and they’re less durable. That doesn’t mean that Google isn’t also trying to pursue a drone strategy: the search giant actually outbid Facebook for a U.S. dronemaker, Titan Aerospace, in April, leaving Facebook to buy a U.K.-based drone company, Ascenta, for $US20 million, making it by far one of Zuckerberg’s least costly acquisitions.
ADVERTISING FOR EVERYONE
The white paper wraps Facebook’s drone agenda in the noble and uplifting rhetoric of global togetherness and shared progress — better living through friending. For what’s it’s worth, the technical arguments are compelling: It does make a lot of sense to supply cheap connectivity with cheap drones to regions where incomes and infrastructure is nowhere near a first-world level.
But of course if Facebook wants to capture its piece of the accelerating growth on Internet access that Zuckberg demands, it will help to control the the platforms. In fact, the whole concept of a “platform” makes it natural for companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon to logically look to drones as the Next Big Thing. Google controls a search platform, Amazon controls an e-commerce platform, and Facebook controls a social networking platform.
The whole concept of a “platform” makes it natural for companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon to look to drones as the Next Big Thing. Google controls a search platform, Amazon controls an e-commerce platform, and Facebook controls a social networking platform.
Other business operate on top of these platforms and pay tribute to the owners.
But none of the these companies owns the Internet. So controlling access to the Internet is the next best thing.
Critics of Facebook’s motives in particular argue that Zuckerberg & Co. are enthusiastic about drones because the bulk of the access they will provide will be on mobile networks — Facebook’s Number One market for future growth — and because Facebook will be able to prioritise its own products, from Instagram to WhatsApp, and the advertising that follows.
The entire debate about “net neutrality” also falls away if you’re the access provider — Facebook wouldn’t have to worry about restrictions on data consumption if the social media colossus puts hundreds of drones at 65,000 feet and equips them to tap into Internet bandwidth outside the purview of U.S. regulators. (Although the specifics of how these drones would connect to Internet, and what companies would be working with Facebook, haven’t been worked out yet.)
They would be “mobile phone towers 60,000 feet tall,” as techno-futurist and XPrize CEO Peter Diamandis memorably put it at the Huffington Post.
And these twelve-mile-high mobile phone towers also would be where there currently aren’t even very many 100-foot-tall mobile phone towers — and governments that are less preoccupied with privacy issues. As Politico recently noted, the developing world is actually more favourable to the evolving Silicon Valley-drone project than Facebook, Google, and Amazon’s home market. Getting drones up and flying with limited government interference is a lot easier in Africa or Australia.
In fact, legal experts are already anticipating a strange new world of “drone law” as UAVs begin to fill the skies. But it will be a complex undertaking to write new laws and interpret old ones with drone technology being improved as such a rapid pace.
The nature of operating drones at 60,000 feet and above probably appeals to aspects of the libertarian Silicon Valley mindset. But it’s not as if there aren’t risks — to the drones themselves, more than people on the ground. Popular Mechanics provides a good breakdown: If Facebook intends to send 11,000 drones into the wide blue yonder, it’s going to either have to make them smart enough to dodge collisions with military aircraft, including other drones, or keep track of them on an active basis from the ground.
AS IMPORTANT AS SATELLITES
In the grand scheme of things, Facebook’s drones could provide a real leap forward, in ways we may not fully appreciate at this juncture. It’s easy to forget that much of what we take for granted in modern telecommunications relies on an extensive network of satellites. Satellites, obviously, didn’t exist until the 1950s.
But in the half century since Sputnik, this largely invisible technology has delivered tremendous benefits to society. It’s unlikely, however, that you think about satellites when you’re using GPS to navigate your way around a few city blocks — or cross country.
“Connecting the World from the Sky” is similar in its aspirations. Drones that deliver everything from groceries to televisions may very well be buzzing around our skies very soon. We won’t be able to miss them. But the impact of Facebook’s invisible drones could be much greater.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.