Drone-based internet delivery was one of the most trending ideas of 2016. And unlike the many other ideas that held sway on the trend-o-meter, including internet-connected toothbrushes and smart teddy bears, this one actually had a chance at significantly improving the lives of millions of people. Sadly, it looks like it will be consigned to the rubbish heap of history for now with Google shuttering its Project Titan drone-net service and Facebook’s own solar drone, Aquila, facing a safety investigation over a recent crash.
Google has revealed that it finds the economics and technical requirements of providing Internet services using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to be ‘unfeasible’. It has instead pivoted all of its Internet expansion energies into the equally fantastic-sounding Project Loon, which hopes to beam down high-speed Internet from hot air balloons. The technology is already being trialed in Sri Lanka. But despite a limited test launch nearly six months ago, not a peep has been heard out of the island nation with regards to progress or status updates on the Loon mission.
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However, despite the shutdown of Titan, Google is not giving up on drones entirely: Project Wing, a program aimed at perfecting drone-based delivery of physical goods continues to experiment at six locations all over the United States.
For its part, Facebook has not abandoned its drone dreams despite facing setbacks. The maiden test flight of its solar-powered drone, Aquila, ended in a crash landing due to structural issues. However, the drone, which crawls slowly around the sky rather than flying, using the same amount of energy as three hair driers, is said to have performed quite well while in the air, having its flight-time extended from 30 to 96 minutes. This was followed up the pre-takeoff explosion of a satellite that was intended to deliver Internet access to sub-Saharan Africa. Facebook had nothing to do with the explosion, which can be laid at the feet of the launch company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX. But it does serve to highlight the tricky proposition that is Internet from the skies above.
Connecting the unconnected parts of the world is a lofty challenge that is bound to take time and involve numerous false starts. But for the two Silicon Valley giants who are best-positioned to bankroll and engineer this dream, it appears that enthusiasm for the crazy moonshots appears to be running out. Google’s most successful Internet expansion program over the past year was the decidedly unsexy, low-tech WiFi rollout to Indian railway stations which helped it reach over 5 million people. Facebook’s victories also came in a relatively old-school way, through carrier partnerships and zero rating in the form of its Free Basics program (which despite its infamous end in India, has added 25 million users worldwide). One can only hope that the hitches and glitches with the hi-tech programs can be sorted out by the time all the low-hanging fruit has been picked by the low-tech ones.