Facebook ex­plored us­ing a fleet of tiny, bird-sized drones to boost mo­bile in­ter­net speeds

Sun.Star Pampanga - - TECHNEWS! -

The se­cre­tive co­de­named ‘Catalina’project was ended a year ago

Facebook has for years ex­plored ways to help im­prove mo­bile con­nec­tiv­ity and bring more of the pop­u­la­tion in de­vel­oped coun­tries get on­line, os­ten­si­bly a hu­man­i­tar­ian effort but more of a thinly veiled ploy to bring more peo­ple into its app ecosystem. That effort’s most vis­i­ble pro­jects have been Facebook’s In­ter­net.org ini­tia­tive, with its Free Ba­sics and Ex­press Wi-Fi of­fer­ings for fast­grow­ing smart­phone markets, and the dis­con­tin­ued Aquila project, which sought to fly large, so­lar-pow­ered drones that could beam down in­ter­net much like Al­pha­bet’s high-fly­ing Loon he­lium bal­loons.

But Facebook was work­ing on an­other method in secret that in­volved much smaller, bird-sized fixed-wing air­craft that could be used to boost smart­phone data speeds, ac­cord­ing to a re­port to­day from Busi­ness In­sider. The project, co­de­named “Catalina” af­ter an is­land off the Southern California coast no­table for once us­ing a car­rier pi­geon network, was dis­con­tin­ued about a year ago, a Facebook spokesper­son con­firmed to BI. But its ex­is­tence il­lus­trates that Facebook was look­ing at con­nec­tiv­ity through a va­ri­ety of lenses.

BI re­ports that the drones would be closer to the size of a spar­row, mak­ing them al­most pocket-sized. The goal would not be to beam down a func­tion­ing in­ter­net con­nec­tion to com­pletely re­mote ar­eas, but in­stead to aug­ment ex­ist­ing, 2G-level con­nec­tions to al­low smart­phone users to stream video and per­form other more data-in­ten­sive tasks. It’s not clear how ex­actly that would have worked. The re­port de­scribes the drones as de­signed to carry “high-den­sity solid state drives... that could then be used to ferry data,” so per­haps the drones would act as a mesh network of sorts be­tween a grounded con­nec­tion and a user’s smart­phone to fa­cil­i­tate high-band­width data t r ans­fer s.

Re­gard­less, it seems that Facebook moved away from that idea just as it aban­doned the Aquila con­cept. The com­pany isn’t to­tally out of the con­nec­tiv­ity game, though. It still has In­ter­net.org, de­spite the set­backs that or­ga­ni­za­tion has faced in In­dia. And when the Aquila news broke in June 2018, Facebook said it was still work­ing with Air­bus to de­velop bet­ter ver­sions of what are known as high-al­ti­tude plat­form sta­tions, or HAPS, that can be built into air­craft for the purpose of beam­ing down high-speed in­ter­net from low Earth or­bit. At the time, the com­pany also said it was “ac­tively par­tic­i­pat­ing in a num­ber of avi­a­tion ad­vi­sory boards and rule-mak­ing com­mit­tees in the US and in­ter­na­tion­ally.”

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