Alphabet’s airborne broadband plans no longer include drones, as the company says balloons are a more promising delivery mechanism for bringing Internet access to remote and rural areas.
Google bought drone maker Titan Aerospace in 2014 and began testing drones that could eventually be used to bring Internet connections to remote places. But the company quietly scrapped those plans nearly a year ago, 9to5Google reported yesterday. More than 50 employees were moved to other Alphabet projects.
“The team from Titan was brought into X in early 2016,” Alphabet told 9to5Google. “We ended our exploration of high-altitude UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] for Internet access shortly after. By comparison, at this stage, the economics and technical feasibility of Project Loon present a much more promising way to connect rural and remote parts of the world. Many people from the Titan team are now using their expertise as part of other high-flying projects at X, including Loon and Project Wing.”
When contacted bytoday, Alphabet provided the same statement it gave 9to5Google but no further information.
Project Loon is the balloon initiative that Google began working on a few years ago. The idea is to create a network of balloons that can carry Internet signals from cell towers to users that otherwise wouldn’t be within range. “High-speed Internet is transmitted up to the nearest balloon from our telecommunications partner on the ground, relayed across the balloon network, and then back down to users on the ground,” Alphabet says. “We have demonstrated data transmission between balloons over 100km apart in the stratosphere and back down to people on the ground with connection speeds of up to 10Mbps, directly to their LTE phones.”
Alphabet has “autolaunchers” that can launch new balloons every 30 minutes. In test flights, balloons have stayed in the stratosphere for as long as 187 days.
Project Wing, meanwhile, uses drones, but not for delivering Internet access. Instead, the Wing team aims to create “a new commerce system” using drones to deliver consumer products as well as emergency medicine. Google has also invested in SpaceX, which is building low-Earth orbit satellites for broadband.
The idea of drone-based broadband networks may not be dead just because Alphabet gave up on it. Facebook, for example, is working on solar-powered drones that might be able to deliver Internet service to remote areas. Although the Facebook drone’s first test flight in June 2016 resulted in a landing accident in the face of heavy winds, Facebook said the test was still a success overall.