Facebook made an important announcement yesterday: Aquila, its solar-powered drone which will beam down internet from the skies using lasers, had its first successful test flight that lasted 96 minutes. Facebook’s Aquila comes under the company’s Internet.org initiative, which looks to bring free internet connectivity to remote parts of the world.Facebook is not the only one looking at beaming down internet from the sky.Google’s Project Loon will rely on balloons for internet connectivity. Microsoftannounced its White Spaces project to utilise unused spectrum in India to boost rural connectivity. Here’s a quick look at the three important projects, which aim to boost internet connectivity across the world.Aquila has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 737. The plane is made of carbon fiber composite, and weighs less than 1,000 pounds (or nearly 453 kgs). This light weight is to keep Aquila airborne for a longer time. The plane is solar-powered and currently uses about 5,000W of power at cruising altitude. Facebook intends to reduce power consumption and weight of this plane further.While Aquila is currently controlled by a ground crew, takeoff and landing are automatic. The plane which flies very slowly at 80 mph/128 kmph, will carry a communications payload. Facebook says the beams will be “precise enough to hit a dime more than 11 miles away.” The cruising altitude for these planes will be 60,000 feet when they are fully ready, which higher than most commercial aircraft.Facebook’s plan is to leave these Aquila planes airborne for months at a time, so they can communicate with each other, form a network, and beam down internet.In Yael Macguire of Facebook’s connectivity lab had said, “We want the airplanes to be where the people are… It is really important that they can station keep, or stay in a particular region and connect a particular people. They will move, but around a small zone. When the plane moves the RF (radio frequency) system will adjust so that it continues to have the same terrestrial footprint.”For Facebook, the challenge will be to ensure the beams can precisely hit at targets, as well as making these planes lighter and more power efficient.Google’s Project Loon will rely on a network of floating balloons to help provide internet connectivity to rural and remote areas. Google has already started testing out Project Loon in India, and is reportedly working with BSNL to share spectrum.Project Loon balloons will travel in the stratosphere, approximately 20 km above the Earth’s surface, latching onto layers of wind as directed by software algorithms. In the end, they will form one large communications network. The balloons are made from sheets of polyethylene plastic; they are 15 metres wide and 12 metres tall when fully inflated, and Google hopes to keep each balloon afloat for nearly three months, once they are up in the sky.The electronics are powered by an array of solar panels, which can produce about 100 Watts of power in full sun. Each balloon can provide connectivity to a ground area of about 40 km in diameter using LTE technology. In June 2013, Project Loon was first tested in New Zealand.Microsoft’s White Space Project is coming to India, and has been tested in other countries in the world, including UK, USA, Jamaica, Namibia, Philippines, Taiwan etc.Microsoft’s idea with White Spaces is to utilise the spaces or gaps between frequency bands of TV spectrum. Spectrum is generally organised into frequency “bands” to eliminate “bleeding” of transmissions from one channel onto another and these spaces or gaps called “white spaces” are what Microsoft plans to use.Microsoft’s White Space Project website claims the WiFi in their testing achieved approximately four times the range of a 2.4 GHz standard WiFi channel, with less noise and better propagation through walls and obstructions.While WiFi has a range of about 100 metres, the 200-300 MHz spectrum band available in the white space can reach up to 10 km. The Srikakulam district in Andhra Pradesh will be first place where the White Spaces project will be tested out in India.
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