Tech giant Google is testing solar-powered drones at Spaceport America in New Mexico to explore ways to deliver high-speed Internet from the air, according to published reports. As part of the project, codename SkyBender, Google has built several prototype transceivers at the spaceport and is testing them with multiple drones.
For the time being, the drones and support aircraft will be housed in 15,000 square feet of hangar space in the Gateway to Space terminal designed by Virgin for its Galactic spaceflights program. Google has also installed its own separate flight control center in the nearby Spaceflight Operations Center.
Project SkyBender will use drones to experiment with millimeter wave radio transmissions, one of the technologies being looked at as the basis of 5G wireless Internet. In theory, high-frequency millimeter waves can transmit gigabits of data every second, a speed of up to 40 times faster than current 4G LTE systems.
With airborne 5G speeds, a passenger on a cross-country flight could theoretically download a movie in less than a second. Ultimately, thousands of high-altitude self-flying aircraft would deliver Internet access around the world if all goes according to plan.
Millimeter wave technology shows promise because it creates access to new spectrum away from the existing, overcrowded cellphone spectrum. One drawback is that millimeter wave transmissions have a much shorter range than mobile phone signals.
A signal sent at 28 GHz, which is the frequency Google is testing, would only cover about one-tenth of the distance covered by a 4G phone signal. To transmit millimeter waves from a drone, Google would have to experiment with focused transmissions from a phased array of transmitters, a complex and expensive process.
The SkyBender system is being tested with Centaur aircrafts and solar-powered drones made by Google Titan, a division formed when Google bought Titan Aerospace two years ago.
The story of the SkyBender project was first reported by The Guardian and based on documents obtained under public records laws.
Testing Until July
Experiments with drones and millimeter wave technology have been going on for a few years. In 2014, the U.S. military launched a program called Mobile Hotspots to enable a fleet of drones that could provide communications at a gigabit per second.
With the permission of the Federal Communications Commission, Google will run tests on the technology in New Mexico until July. Google is paying Virgin Galactic $1,000 a day for the use of a hangar in the Gateway to Space building on the condition that it divide its SkyBender tests into two separate flight campaigns so as not to interfere with planned Virgin Galactic activities.
The SkyBender project isn't the first time Google has tried a novel approach to increasing Internet access. A Google initiative from 2013, Project Loon, proposed to create a network of balloons placed in the stratosphere that would allow for data transmission speeds of up to 4G LTE. Google has said that the goal of that project was to provide Internet services in rural and remote areas.
Image Credit: Google Titan Aerospace.