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The Internet Balloons and Drones Are Coming

·Technology Editor

A Project Loon test balloon. 

BARCELONA, Spain –– Look out, birds: You’re about to be joined in the sky by WiFi routers.

Facebook and Google are both working on flying apparatuses that can bring Internet to the people below, executives from both companies confirmed at separate events at the Mobile World Congress here in Barcelona yesterday. First, Google revealed a little more about its plans to connect more people to the Internet using balloons and solar-powered drones; later in the day, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg reiterated that his company is working on a wide range of flying devices and that it is committed to getting more people online however it can.

Google executive Sundar Pichai actually made two fairly major announcements about the company’s airborne Internet efforts at MWC. First, he said, Google’s Project Loon balloons, which float above the ground and beam down low-cost Internet access to unconnected locations, can now stay in the air for 6 months. That’s a big improvement from the 100 days the Loon balloons previously achieved. (Official Project Loon tagline, by the way: “Balloon-Powered Internet for Everyone.”)

Second, Pichai said that Google’s Internet drones, united under the scary-sounding Project Titan label, would make test flights in the coming months. As The Verge reports, the drones are particularly well-crafted for both “supplementing existing services” on the ground and providing Internet access after a natural disaster, when communications services are knocked offline.

Last April Google bought a company called Titan Aerospace, whose solar-powered drones could remain aloft for up to 50 years. Facebook was reported to be interested in buying Titan’s long-lasting drones as well, but Google beat them to the punch. 


A rendering of a Project Titan solar-powered drone. 

Speaking of Facebook: Later in the day, Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg also reiterated that his company’s new Connectivity Lab, which operates with Zuckerberg’s Internet.org initiative, was running similar experiments. The Connectivity Lab has been testing out “drones, satellites and lasers” to connect people to the Internet, Zuckerberg told a crowd during a panel; last September, Connectivity Lab engineering director Yael Maguire revealed that Facebook was planning to trial a WiFi drone the size of a 747 at a height of 60,000 to 90,000 feet starting in 2015. 

Later in the talk, Zuckerberg dismissed the experiments as, well, experiments. But there is still obviously continued interest in the sky as the next frontier of Internet connectivity. 

Your next mobile carrier or Internet provider probably won’t be a balloon. In fact, much of the reason why Zuckerberg spoke in Barcelona at the largest mobile event of the year was to assure telecom operators that his company wasn’t coming after them; Pichai said much the same thing in a Q&A, tamping down expectations for Google’s proposed mobile carrier service. 

Besides, as of now, these experiments are generally positioned as cheap alternatives to building out infrastructure where it doesn’t exist, to get the last ten percent of the world’s citizens online. (Obviously Google and Facebook both have stakes in this, humanitarian and financial.) 

But it will be fascinating to see whether these Internet-bearing flying machines really do fly. Who would have thought so much could depend on a balloon?