Drones, the colloquial term for any Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), have seen a surge in their popularity during the past decade. Owing to their myriad usages in security and civilian applications, they have continued to become cheaper and more accessible in the public domain. Primarily used by the military, they are now used to shoot landscape photography, monitor geographic regions, and as delivery vehicles. A recent start-up at Indian Institute of Science (IISc) has developed a drone that transports organs faster than an ambulance for use in organ transplant. As the range of their potential application expands, one drone startup organization has developed their indigenous drone to help bring Internet access in isolated areas.
So, how exactly is a drone capable of performing such a task? The major hurdle, while installing the infrastructure required for internet access, is time. The problem is more prevalent in isolated rural areas, where towers are miles apart and testing for connectivity takes hours. WISPr Systems, the brainchild of CEO Conor Ferguson, has developed its proprietary drones that aim to cut down the installation time significantly. At present, technicians require 2-3 hours at the minimum to install the infrastructure required for one connection line. This includes the daunting task of climbing towers to test for signals, followed by the installation of an antenna in an appropriate location on a private property that receives the best internet signal from the towers. “We designed a drone to do all the testing so when they go to a house and try to determine what they need to do to get this person internet, they can use our drones to get up high enough and see where they need to put the antenna on the house,” says Ferguson.
The WISPr drones are set to reduce the installation time down to five minutes, while estimating the total cost to reduce by 20% as well. The lower cost and faster installation time might help reverse the ongoing trend in the U.S. – which has seen internet infrastructure expansion being slowed down due to lack of funding. The drones are self-manufactured by WISPr Systems, along with an integrated software platform that maps the towers in the area to gather GPS location and signal strength. More than 3,000 internet access providers across the U.S. have shown interest in purchasing the drones – which come with a GPS map and security features like 360-degree collision avoidance.
In addition to lowering installation time and cost, drones can themselves be used to transmit Internet service. While several companies, including Facebook and SpaceX, have ongoing projects that aim to launch low-orbital satellites that could transmit high-speed broadband, the emergence of solar-powered drones can replace them and also reduce the price significantly. Recently, Airbus developed its first “High-Altitude Pseudo Satellite” drone, called Zephyr. The drone is made out of ultralight fiber materials, weighing a modest 150 pounds. With a wingspan of 80 feet, the drone currently flew at an altitude of 70,000 feet for 25 days, breaking the endurance record set by other drones. With a price of $5 million, as compared to $50 million required to build and launch orbital satellites, these “pseudo-satellites” can instead be used to transmit internet in isolated areas, where developing a ground connection is difficult.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, around 40% of rural areas in the U.S are still deployed of Internet access. Drones, with their capability to either reduce installation burden or transmit high-speed broadband from high altitudes, could be instrumental in solving the problem. At the end of the day, a reliable internet connection has the potential to reduce the rural-urban economic divide and revolutionize healthcare and education.