Google’s reportedly using experimental tech to deliver 5G internet from solar-powered drones

“Our secret tests at this spaceport will blow 4G away!”
“Our secret tests at this spaceport will blow 4G away!”
Image: New Mexico Spaceport Authority
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In 2015, Google’s product head at the time, Sundar Pichai, made headlines when he announced “Project Titan,” a new initiative to deliver internet by solar-powered airplanes. A recent report by The Guardian suggests Google’s experimental foray into wireless internet delivery isn’t going that well.

There are a number of interesting revelations from The Guardian investigation into the initiative, apparently now named ”Project SkyBender.” The details of the project have been kept tightly under wraps and The Guardian says it used “public records laws” to obtain its information, including the contents of emails exchanged between Google executives and the state-owned facility where the project is based. The report leaves the impression that Google doesn’t seem particularly adept at managing projects that involve cumbersome construction and hardware installations, as opposed to the slick software deployments it is known for. Google declined to comment to the Guardian, and didn’t respond to a request for clarification from Quartz. Here’s a breakdown of The Guardian’s report, with context:

  • Pichai is now the chief executive of Google, a subsidiary of the conglomerate Alphabet. SkyBender is part of Alphabet’s Access and Energy unit, according to the Guardian. This unit is also in charge of other connectivity projects like Google Fiber, a business that provides super-fast internet connections in nine US cities. It’s led by Craig Barratt, a former Qualcomm executive who’s described as a “brilliant engineer” and said to be a favorite of Alphabet boss Larry Page.
  • The project apparently uses solar-powered drones from manufacturer Titan Aerospace, which Google acquired in 2014. In May 2015, a Titan drone protoype for the internet delivery service crashed shortly after taking off on a test flight in New Mexico. The drones have wings covered in solar cells and are designed to stay at a high altitude for up to five years. Google registered two drones with the Federal Aviation Authority in October 2015. They’re listed as being manufactured by Google and carry the model names M2 and B3. Additionally, the project uses an airplane from Aurora Life Sciences that can fly itself, the Guardian writes.
  • This is not Alphabet’s only drone or internet-over-the-air project. The conglomerate also has a project to deliver objects by drone called Project Wing, run by the Google X division, and Project Loon, which delivers connectivity from high-altitude balloons. The balloon project also falls under Access and Energy’s remit. Collectively, the projects form a ”connectivity backbone” that Google hopes global carriers will build services on top of, Pichai said last year. Facebook has its own unit working on delivering internet connections via solar-powered drones, through its acquisition of aerospace firm Ascenta in 2014. The social network was reportedly bidding for Titan before it was beaten by Google. 
  • A critical detail of the report is Google’s choice for wireless connectivity: millimeter-wave (mmW) radio technology. It’s thought to be one of the key technologies (PDF) needed to make 5G a reality. But it’s still fraught with problems. For example, mmW have a short range and don’t penetrate buildings well, due to its high frequency. That means new infrastructure, like indoor base stations, will probably be needed. It also means delivering these waves from a high-altitude will be extremely challenging, as one expert told the Guardian. However, 5G wireless internet could provide speeds up to a thousand times faster than current 4G technologies.
  • The SkyBender project is being tested at Spaceport America, a commercial space facility owned by the state of New Mexico which counts Virgin Galactic as a major tenant. The Guardian’s report illustrates the difficulties the tech giant has been facing on the project. According to the outlet, emails between the space port and Google show that the technology company bungled construction work related to SkyBender. A truck delivering components appeared at the spaceport late one night, apparently without considering that the port didn’t have the equipment to unload it. Parts were installed “upside down” or with missing nuts and bolts. This prompted a spaceport manager to sarcastically tell Google that he needed to make a more than 200-mile round-trip to the nearest Home Depot for basic electronics parts.
  • Virgin Galactic was also concerned about Google’s presence at the spaceport, according to the Guardian. Richard Branson’s space company wanted to make sure Google’s work didn’t interfere with its schedule, while Google reportedly had to assure the space company that it wouldn’t take photos inside the spaceport.

These details are fascinating because they suggest that by taking on the massive technical challenge of combining millimeter-wave technology with drones that can fly for years, Alphabet is serious about building the data infrastructure of the future.

The company has already been investing in infrastructure in a more conventional form with Google Fiber. The service currently has a tiny base of just 100,000 to 120,000 paying subscribers in the nine US cities it serves, according to estimates by asset management firm Alliance Bernstein, but that could grow to 15 to 20 million households in the next six years, the firm forecasted. That could eat into as much as 10% of the subscriber base currently controlled by incumbents like Time Warner Cable, according to Bernstein. Similarly, 5G is only expected to come into use in 2020 or beyond. But SkyBender is positioning Alphabet for a world in which 60% of the global population will have have access to 4G-LTE networks, according to trade body GSMA. That could put Alphabet and its famous subsidiary Google in an enviable position.