Google closes internet drone project – how else can we bring connectivity to remote areas?


Google has shuttered one of the moonshots it’s been working on in its X division known as Titan.

Google acquired the project from Titan Aerospace in 2014 and sought to beam internet from the sky via drones down to remote areas where installing fixed line connectivity is either to expensive or to tricky. Titan would have overcome the need for installing fixed-line infrastructure (even cell towers need fixed line connectivity) with the help of the drones.

The project faced technical and funding challenges, according to the BBC, and Google seems to have decided that pursuing other avenues for internet connectivity were more promising.

Our question then is, what other methods could firms use to bring internet to remote areas such as those found here in Africa? As it turns out, there are still a number of projects focused on doing exactly that.

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Project Loon

Titan was not Google’s only moonshot trying to bring internet to remote areas, there is also Loon. The project uses huge balloons floating at the edge of space to beam internet down to antennas on the ground. Now that Titan has been shuttered Google says that many of the staff from that project will join the Loon team.

Of course Loon is not without its own issues, chief among which is accusations that Google stole the idea from Space Data. Google has already begun launching balloons with the help of a crane it calls Chicken Little. The crane is able to fill, lift and launch balloons in under 30 minutes and it can be moved just in case the wind is a bit to harsh.

The project is still undergoing rigourous testing which you can follow on the official Google+ page.

Project Aquila

Google is not the only firm with hopes of beaming internet to the world’s unconnected citizens, Facebook also has high flying aspirations. Known as Project Aquila, Facebook hopes to use a solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flying above us to send internet to the ground. The UAV completed it’s first successful test flight in July 2016 but there is still a ways to go before the project is viable.

For one, Aquila drones would need to remain airborne for up to three months. The test flight in July 2016 only lasted for 90 minutes and the world record for the longest flight of a solar powered UAV is two weeks.

The social network reckons Aquila will be more than capable of reaching that  three month flight time given the vessel’s massive wingspan loaded with solar panels and UAV’s 5 000 watt power draw at a speed of 128kph.

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While it is very exciting Aquila still has months – possibly years – of testing ahead of it before we have drones sending us internet.

Konnect Africa

European firm Eutelsat has created an entirely new division within the business that aims to connect the unconnected in Africa using satellites. Christened with the the name Konnect Africa the service hopes to provide internet to sub-Saharan Africa using spot beam technology. The goal is to beam internet to the ground which has speeds comparable to those achieved through a fibre connection.

Bringing internet to Sub-Saharan Africa from space

The catch however is that this won’t come cheap. Konnect Africa chief executive officer Laurent Grimaldi says connectivity will likely cost R300 – R450 which is still out of reach for many Africans.

The service is expected to launch in the second half of this year in Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, DRC, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Lesotho, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and South Africa. By 2019 Konnect Africa hopes to offer the service in Angola, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Sudan, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

These are but three projects that are in the works. Facebook is also looking at using satellites to provide connectivity and SpaceX wants to create a network of 4 000 satellites to send gigabit speed internet to earth.

So while Google’s Titan is grounded, the hopes of connecting the unconnected through innovative solutions are seemingly still very much afloat.

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