Look! Up in the Sky, It’s a Bird, It’s a . . .

San-Carlos-UFOI have always been fascinated by people who say that they have seen UFOs. I’ve spoken to some of them and they seem very sincere. I remain skeptical that there really are airships from another planet constantly visiting us and I figure that in most cases that there is an explanation of what these people saw in the sky. Over the next decades there is going to be the potential for a lot more ‘UFO’ sightings because many different technologies are moving to the sky.

The first of note is the race between Google and Facebook to bring Internet access to the 5 billion people that don’t have it today. Google is considering a fleet of balloons that they have named Loon as a platform to bring Internet everywhere. Facebook has teamed up with other companies in a collaboration called Internet.org. This group is considering both satellite technology and solar-powered drones that would fly at 20,000 meters, above both weather and commercial air traffic.

But these two initiatives are just the beginning of what’s coming to the sky. Today over a billion people on the planet don’t have access to electricity, and so that issue must be addressed first before bringing Internet access. There are a number of firms looking at ways to bring electricity to remote area using airborne wind turbines. One of these is the BAT being trialed in Alaska by Altaeros Energies. The BAT is a helium-filled cylindrical blimp with a wind-turbine in the center. It can fly up to 1,000 feet to catch steady winds and can generate enough electricity in this first version to power twelve full-sized homes.

But there are other companies looking at air-born electric generation. One is Google-owned Makani out of California whose wind generator looks like a glider airplane. Another firm looking into tethered wind generators is LTA Windpower out of Canada that has a design that looks like a blimp with wings. Finally in the race is EnerKite out of Berlin which has designed what looks like a large kite that can generate electricity.

All of these airborne wind generators are counting on the fact that winds are steadier and stronger as close as 1,000 feet off the ground. Building generators that can reach into those steady winds is far more efficient per dollar than land-based wind turbines. Plus, these wind generators can bring electric generation to remote places – to a small group of rural homes off the grid, to remote locations used for scientific research, to rural villages in third world countries or to temporary locations like airplane crash sites.

While we are looking up at the sky we are probably going to start seeing drones used for all sorts of commercial purposes. The biggest such announcement was Amazon talking about using drones to deliver small packages within 30-minutes of taking an order. But there are other companies around the world looking at delivery drones. SF Express in China is already using delivery drones on a trial basis. And a UK franchise of Domino’s pizza has demonstrated pizza delivery with drones.

In addition to the commercial applications are the personal and government applications. Anybody can buy a drone today that can be used to peek in your neighbor’s windows. Many science fiction books have predicted a future when police drones will be sent quickly to crime and accident scenes to record fresh evidence, and of course, in science fiction books this always morphs into drones that poke into every aspect of our privacy.

Finally, there are a lot of recent articles talking about the possibility of soon building an affordable flying car or some sort of hovercraft that could be used for local transportation. In a few years there might be so many devices in the air that talk of UFOs will be ignored since there will usually be another explanation.

Bringing the Internet Everywhere

AldoCorazza1904WPFacebook has announced that they are working to create platforms that will deliver Internet access to the large parts of the planet that don’t have it. They are considering several options including flying drones and satellites, both using infrared lasers to beam connections to users. This is being done under the name of the Facebook Connectivity Lab and includes experts from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, the Ames Research Center and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.

Google announced something similar last year with its project Loon that is looking to bring Internet access using large balloons. Google has already run tests with the technology last year in New Zealand. The balloons fly high up in the stratosphere, far above weather, and they can be placed where needed by moving them higher or lower to use wind layers that travel in the desired direction.

I find it fascinating that these companies see enough benefit to themselves to spend a huge amount of money to bring Internet to people that can’t get it today. There are varying estimates of how much of the world has Internet access today, but I’ve seen several estimates that say that half of the world still doesn’t have access. So these two companies have decided that they want to be the first to get to the remaining billions of people

Certainly these companies both will benefit financially by having large numbers of additional customers. And one can certainly expect that if Google or Facebook brings Internet access to some remote area that the Internet access they deliver will be highly flavored by their brand name.

Both companies are actively engaged in gathering data about the world and the people who use their services. Once can only imagine how much more they could learn if they are able to add an additional billion people to that data gathering effort.

Nobody was surprised when Google took on this effort since they are infamous for tackling one-off and interesting ideas. But I think a lot of people were surprised to see Facebook tackle this. But this is not Facebook’s first foray into hardware. They have spent a lot of effort to redesign the servers used in data centers and they have developed a new generation of servers that are faster and that yet need less power and generate less heat.

And Facebook is not just going after the unserved and rural third world. They are working on a project that will use solar-powered high-altitude planes that stay aloft for months over the suburbs of big cities.

And recently Facebook bought Oculus, a gaming company that specializes in virtual reality headsets. They have in mind to create an immersive Facebook experience. I don’t know about you, but I am not sure I am quite ready to get too immersed with my Facebook friends!