Google is testing solar-powered drones at Spaceport America in New Mexico to explore ways to deliver high-speed Internet from the air, the Guardian has learned. In a secretive project codenamed SkyBender, the technology giant built several prototype transceivers t the isolated spaceport last summer, and is testing them with multiple drones, according to documents obtained under public records laws.
In order to house the drones and support aircraft, Google is temporarily using 15,000 square feet of hanger space in the glamorous Gateway to Space terminal, designed by Richard Foster for the much -delayed Virgin Galactic spaceflights. The tech company also installed its own dedicated flight control center in the nearby Spaceflight Operations Center, separate from the terminal.
Project SkyBender is using drones to experiment with millimeter-wave transmissions, a technology that could underpin the next generation 5G wireless Internet access. This methodology, theoretically, can transmit gigabits of data every second, up to 40 times that of today’s LTE systems. Google ultimately envisions thousands of high altitude “self-flying aircraft” delivering Internet access around the world.
“The huge advantage of millimeter-wave is access to a new spectrum because the existing cellphone spectrum is overcrowded. It’s packed and there’s nowhere else to go,” says Jacques Rudell, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle and specialist in this technology.
However, millimeter-wave has a much shorter range than mobile phone signals. Google is testing at 28GHz; this would fade out in about a tenth the distance of a 4G phone signal. To compensate, Google needs to experiment with focused transmissions for a phased array. “This is very difficult, very complex and burns a lot of power,” says Rudell.
The SkyBender system is being tested with an “optionally piloted” aircraft called Centaur as well as a solar-powered drone called Solara 50 which is made by Google Titan, formerly Titan Aerospace, acquired in 2014. Titan has built high-altitude solar-powered drones with wingspans of up to 50 meters.
Spaceport America is glad of the $300,000 SkyBender tests, as Virgin Galactic virtually mothballed its terminal following the 2014 crash of its prototype SpaceShipTwo vehicle in California. Christine Anderson, chief executive officer of Spaceport America, admits that the facility is now running out of money.
Google is paying Virgin Galactic $1,000 a day for the use of the hanger, but had to split its SkyBender tests into two separate campaigns to secure the space. Anderson expects Virgin Galactic to unveil its new SpaceShipTwo at the Spaceport in February, and to begin flights in 2018.
Both Google and Facebook have significantly expanded their rival plans to develop unmanned aircraft that can provide broadband Internet access from high above the earth, the Guardian has learned.
Over the summer, Facebook revealed a huge solar-powered drone called Aquila with a wingspan of 42 meters, capable of operating at 90,000 feet. Aquila was developed by Facebook in the UK. The drone is made from carbon fiber that is about three times stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum. Yael Maguire, head of Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, said in July that Aquila would weigh in at about 400kg.
The Guardian learned that the first and only Aquila prototype arrived in the US in late September. However, registration papers with the FAA show the aircraft now has a maximum takeoff weight of over 500kg. They also indicate that Aquila was not delivered to Facebook but instead was sold to a recently formed Facebook subsidiary called FCL Tech Inc, for $2 million.
Read Article (Mark Harris | theguardian.com | 01/29/2016)
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