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Drones vs. balloons: Zuckerberg explains why wings are better for the internet than helium

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When Facebook(s fb) and revealed their intentions on Thursday to connect the developing world through aerial drones and satellites, the plans drew the inevitable comparisons to Google’s(s goog) Project Loon, which would field fleets of balloons in the Earth’s stratosphere. The similarities weren’t lost on Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg published a treatise Friday detailing many aspects of’s new connectivity projects, and while he didn’t mention Google or Project Loon by name, he did make a point of explaining why he feels drone technologies are superior to balloons when it comes to delivering internet access to the world’s unconnected.

Facebook drone concept
Source: Facebook

Since the drones are essentially unmanned planes, will be able to precisely control their location and movements, Zuckerberg wrote. That means they will be able to circle their coverage zones in tight circles, move easily to other coverage zones or fly themselves to a maintenance facility for repairs.

Project Loon balloons will basically be floating on the atmospheric winds. They’ll be able to steer themselves in part by adjusting their altitude, catching atmospheric cross-currents to change direction. But they certainly won’t have the controlled precision of winged aircraft.

Zuckerberg further wrote that the goal of any aerial broadband system should be to find that sweet spot in altitude that will allow them to fly higher than regulated airspace and the troposphere’s weather patterns, while still being close enough to the Earth’s surface to send out a strong broadband signal to the ground.

Both Loon and’s drones would fly at the same altitude — about 12 miles up — but aircraft are better suited to dealing with the rigors of that height, Zuckerberg said. Loon balloons are being designed to stay aloft for 100 days – or three trips around the world. Zuckerberg said might be able to extend some drones’ flights for years.
From the paper:

“Based on these constraints, drones operating at 65,000 feet are ideal. At this altitude, a drone can broadcast a powerful signal that covers a city-sized area of territory with a medium population density. This is also close to the lowest altitude for unregulated airspace, and a layer in the atmosphere that has very stable weather conditions and low wind speeds. This means an aircraft can easily cruise and conserve power, while generating power through its solar panels during the day to store in its batteries for overnight use.

“With the efficiency and endurance of high altitude drones, it’s even possible that aircraft could remain aloft for months or years. This means drones have more endurance than balloons, while also being able to have their location precisely controlled. And unlike satellites, drones won’t burn up in the atmosphere when their mission is complete. Instead, they can be easily returned to Earth for maintenance and redeployment.”

Zuckerberg makes plenty of good points, but he does seem to be sidestepping the point that Google isn’t necessarily looking for precision and control in its aerial network. The goal of Loon is to quite literally blanket the stratosphere with internet radios, letting them float freely on east-west winds. Google needs control of these balloons only in the sense that it needs to keep them spaced evenly apart so they can provide consistent coverage and capacity as they pass overhead.

A Project Loon Balloon (source: Google)
A Project Loon Balloon (source: Google)

In contrast, wants to build a much more rigid network, with drones hovering over pre-defined population areas. That approach is probably a lot more efficient — Google Balloons will spend a lot of time beaming their signals into open ocean — but by definition that approach demands have much more control over its aircraft.

Zuckerberg’s connectivity treatise had several more interesting nuggets. In the paper, Zuckerberg readily admitted that many of the technologies is exploring are still in the experimental phase. For instance free-space optics technologies have been around for a while, but the type of free-space optics Facebook is talking about – pointing a laser mounted on fast-moving object at another fast-moving object – still needs plenty more research.

As for rural coverage, also hasn’t settled on whether it will use geostationary satellites, which hover at fixed points relative to earth at far-distant orbits, or low-earth orbit satellite constellations, which whiz over our heads at a rapid pace. In the paper, Zuckerberg discussed the merits and drawbacks of both approaches.

Source: Gigaom
Source: Gigaom

And what’s particular intriguing is Zuckerberg broached the idea that Facebook and might be looking beyond suburban and rural connectivity to connecting major population centers where the telecom carriers have focused their efforts.

“… in urban environments, wireless mesh networks can provide simple to deploy and cost effective solutions,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We will discuss this further in a later paper.”

14 Responses to “Drones vs. balloons: Zuckerberg explains why wings are better for the internet than helium”

  1. Lol-berg

    Yeah right, every country on eart will absolutely want nsa, oops I mean facebook/google drones monitoring every square inch and controlling all their telecom infrastructure. Nice try giys.

  2. Paco Loco Zuck has the Bill Gate’s syndrome going. Teledesic was the same idea to bring Internet to the great unwashed and even with Bill Gates and Craig McCaw ( founded Clearwire and the original AT&T cell phone network back in the 80’s) $$ backing, it never made it from the idea stage. Why? Ask Iridium ( they went BK within 5 years)of start-up and were backed by Motorola) they resurrected back to life during the Iraq war supporting military traffic. Another LEO is GlobaStar and like wise they have struggled. It’s no trival, nor cheap, matter to keep a constellation in orbit. Keep an eye on O3b, which launches their next four MEO’s in June, to gauge how well they do service wise in the next year.


  3. Stephen Newell

    Facebook could have purchased many of the world’s satellite operators for the price they paid for Whatsapp. I can only wonder why Mr. Zuckerberg feels that the rest of the world is somehow deprived of connectivity when the basic necessities of a modern world… food, water, medicine and safety are most needed, not checking in to Facebook.

    The world certainly looks different to the 0.00001%

    • Mr Stephen

      you certainly know that a Satellite is more expensive to operate and maintain than a drone. so if you want to offer the public something for cheaper or free, use the cheapest option, the thing is even if you reason that zuckerberg has a lot of money therefore he can afford it, you are forgetting that he doesn’t live in a vacuum, he abides by the same rules that you and me abides by, he is just richer meaning if he where to purchase the satellites as you say, he still can’t offer the access cheaper than it is already, simple economics will let you see this.

      Stop going against the guy because he is rich, he made his money in the same world you live in, certainly that says something about him, he is clever than you face it, (referecne facebook)

      Author Justice Ndou

  4. Eila Carl Van Sauter

    Given a little platitude – let’s not forget that there is a 1% of an American population that owns 40% of all wealth; and I surmise given my experience with economics from college (along with some accounting), this 1% of America Must Keep the variable in the (GNP algebraic equation and/ or it’s ilk) Down to 40% or-else! right? Assuming I’m talking to a relatively perceptive group. The equation wont balance.

    They need to get rid of their money – in an appropriate fashion that helps them.

    In this particular situation, science – they love to put the cart before the horse – bolstering our SiFi dreams of a grandiose quality of life. This accomplishes quite a few objectives – unifies the masses toward a goal, it seems to help the economy (aka good intentions) – basically a win-win situation …But a win-win situation for who? to more or less make the rich, Richer – and subsequently you can see passing on that rags to riches story for a few more capitalist. But for my area of concentration – it deflects the eventual obvious socioeconomic change, from happening – accomplished by (at least in this one method) with compulsory military service. Just think of the effects that it would have on capitalism. but I digress!

    The web gets bogged down already on the weekends and not to mention the few seconds it takes my router to transmit when my computer wakes up or gets turned on. Granted this article is a noble pursuit but you need to see the forest through the trees – for the propaganda that it is – don’t be fooled just because it’s science related. Ouch, right?

    Our technology needs to still make some incredible leaps and bounds before we can spend Good money after Good money. Example:

    NASA sent a robot to push the “robotic manned expedition agenda” as their swan-song, when they could have sent a stationary probe preceded by a slight explosion, right? (so why the robot?) We can’t exist in gravity free space for any prolonged period of time …hence, let’s make our last college try in the name of progress – let’s spend the money on “robotics.”

    No doubt, a round of applause, I tip my hat in a job well done. But wow, that sure was a lot of money just for what? Good, Bad or indifferent remains to be seen.

    Same thing goes for this article. When was the last time we heard about more of those small lines on a processor getting smaller? Or the last time we heard about super-conductors, no? Solid state hard drives? Yes, no, maybe? What about this “every so many years we make a leap in technology,” or something.

    It’s so easy to grab the ball and run with it, all on a tangent – and for what? All these updates on our computer so we can be more connected to “just twitter and Facebook” (my god) right? They make it sound like there’s going to be an onslaught of all these services to use some “hub” of creation just released on the yet next new piece of software – tell me no! And it’s just a matter of time before people can see it for what it really is – a money making opportunity. Try and see the forest through the trees, all these people who have 1% of all our wealth. What if it was 50% or 60%? would we be so nonchalant then? Is the distribution of wealthy magically getting better?

    I think the same thing happened in the medical field, no? They take a wholesome idea and squeeze (not just everything out of it) but every Angle out of it – making money from making money.

    Being Mr. steal industry Carnegie doesn’t give Carnegie the right to wanna make everything we own, out of steal.

  5. Ibrahim Diallo

    I know this sounds good and exciting. But I propose a simpler solution. Cable and wires.
    Developed countries have trouble dealing even with amazon drones. Why would it be easier to make those fly in developing countries? There are transatlantic cables, why can’t there be cables going from the city to the rural part of Guinea ? Ok what I am saying is not so much a solution but more of looking at the real problem.

  6. Fred Zimmerman

    How can be Facebook be so tone-deaf as to plunge ahead with this tech-mentality initiative for US SPY DRONES EVERYWHERE without realizing that it simply is not going to happen?

    • Jacob Shea

      That’s why they have lobbyist in Washington to start the discussions. Why you feel such an organization like FB would be considered tone-deaf is beyond me, they’ve very serious, and have spent plenty of resources and money on Social Good projects.

    • Anthony Gordon

      Its a trade off. Drones Means more Internet, Less Bandwidth constraints, More Internet Competition (Just think about small companies like net zero who can invest without taking risk). More Cable Competition (Just think about stations that complain about leaving Cable and Satellite because their so damn picky) More Information means a more informed World, which means less violence and ignorance. In oppose to keeping the status quo, Internet and Cable Prices rising more and more. If the public was smart we would allow it only to Public Trading owners and Leave out Government and Private Companies. Sounds crazy but it seems more secure to have companies that have their balls in a vice by wall street.

  7. The technolodgy that zuckerberg proposes could be just waht we need especially here in South Africa where even though mobile technolodgy has made some tremendous changes where almost everyone have a cell phone we are still lacking in the sense of connectivity, and zuckerberg drone technology can just save the day. we just have to wait and see.

    Author is Justice Ndou

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Nope, the Hubble is in LEO orbit. I don’t know all of the reasons but It’s easy to get to and since it’s pointed outward, not toward the earth’s surface, it doesn’t need to be in geosynchronous orbit. The key thing was getting a telescope outside of Earth’s atmosphere, which LEO accomplishes.