Drone Commerce, Part 2: Global Internet Access

In Part 1 of this series, I looked at Amazon’s use of drones for same-day delivery. In this post, I will examine Google’s proposed use of drones for ubiquitous Internet access and near-Earth monitoring from the point of view of someone who has built things that fly, the software that controls them and large-scale Internet platforms.

The Drones of Titan

The drones created by Titan (now Goolge) Aerospace are quite different from the quadcopters you can buy online or the military UAVs featured so prominently in the news since 9-11. They are high-endurance drones intended to stay continuously aloft at 65,000’ (20 km) for 3 to 5 years. Running on solar-rechargeable batteries, they are designed to function as in-atmosphere satellites, providing communications (like COMSATs) or sensor-based observation (like weather and surveillance satellites).

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Packets of energy, not goods

Amazon’s is exploring use of drones to delivery physical goods. This brings on a host of complex aeronautic and air traffic challenges: the ability to carry payload while staying small enough to navigate inside cities; efficiently taking off and landing several times per day in the midst of wind gusts and other weather conditions; and the need to avoid trees, birds, power lines, buildings and host of other obstacles. Google’s drones avoid all of these challenges:

  • Flying at 65,000’ places them above all weather events and a majority of atmospheric turbulence. It also places them above birds, buildings, mountains and even commercial airline traffic
  • Staying aloft for years (or even just a few months) eliminates exposure to the highest-risk operation any non-military aircraft can do: takeoff or land. It also reduces equipment replacement costs and virtually eliminates re-fueling costs.
  • By transmitting and receiving photons (light and other electromagnetic waves) the drones do not need to be engineered to carry high payloads. They also do not need to be engineered for repeated loading and unloading of packages.

These changes significantly reduce operational risk and cost. From an engineer’s point of view, the technology is a great fit to its intended function. However…

Is this just and engineer’s fantasy?

Yes, the Google Drones appear to be great candidates for in-atmosphere satellites. However, keeping hundreds or thousands of drones aloft is a pricey enterprise with complexity akin to that of operating a mid-sized airport. Aren’t there technologies already available that already meet the needs these drones are intended to satisfy? Let’s look at the two commonly considered alternatives to help answer this:

Cellular (GSM/GPRS/3G/LTE/4G):

Cellular technology already exists in many, many parts of the world (even 95% of the people in Africa who live in areas with electrical power, live within coverage of cell towers). At first examination, using drones to give coverage to everyone outside cell tower coverage seems to be a display of “First World Hi-Tech Hubris”. If these drones were just intended to provide Internet (as Facebook was exploring), I would agree 100%.

However these drones can have cameras and other sensors to provide monitoring of the environment, climate change, and natural disasters that cell towers cannot. Given the benefits already provided by using Google Earth data for analysis of climate, population, infrastructure and more, one can easily see the doors that opened by feeding camera and sensor data from these drones to developers and researchers via Google’s Maps APIs (including weather and traffic layers and ‘satellite’ views).

Finally as these drones are powered by sunlight, they would continue to function and provide monitoring and Internet access even if a natural disaster took at power grids and energy pipelines for an area.

Satellite:

horizon-1One could easily argue that satellites (between Iridium, SPOT, INMARSAT, COMSAT, and all those government programs I cannot mention) cover all the gaps cellular technology misses. At 65,000’ of altitude, these drones would only be able to cover a 300-mile radius: satellites (depending on orbital parameters) can cover up to 160x this coverage area.

However, satellites are expensive (as we have learned with the disappearance of flight MH370), satellite is expensive (about $0.14-$0.18 per small 1-Kilobyte message). The reason for this high-cost is two-fold: the high-cost of launching a satellite and the distance they are above the earth (it takes over 1500x the power to transmit a signal to an Iridium satellite than it does to transmit a signal to a drone overhead at 65,000’).

This opens to door to communication with a whole new class of technologies, ones far less expensive than satphones. This includes everything from low-cost mobile phones to OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) laptops to sensors used to track endangered species and protect them against poaching.

This distance factor goes beyond power consumption to image resolution (Ground Sample Distance or GSD). Quite simply, a drone at 65,000’ can get photos with 6x the resolution of satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and 40x the resolution of satellites like SPOT.

A great addition, but not the only answer

The Google Drone concept is not a one-size-fits-all answer. It would take thousands of drones to cover the Earth, a very costly operation. While providing more coverage than cell towers, they would often be farther away and more costly to operate. While providing better bandwidth and GSD than satellite, they would have less coverage area. As such the answer, like all things in Internet access (and sensor technology) is a blended combination of fixed-line Internet, multiple terrestrial wireless technologies (from ZigBee to 4G), satellites and drones.

This begs an important question…

One question that has plagued me from the day I first saw Facebook’s interest in Titan was why communications companies like Vodafone (which is rather well known for its 21-country mobile SIM network) were not interested in companies like Titan. Overall, using drones for ubiquitous Internet would appear to be a much better strategic fit to a company that already charges customers for Internet access. Perhaps Google can make more money from higher-resolution image and sensor data than it would initially appear. Or perhaps these drones could serve as a potential grid network that could bypass carriers if the Net Neutrality wars go in a bad direction (just like Netflix is exploring with its peer-to-peer research).

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Only time will tell.

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