The Future of WiFi: Solar-Powered Internet Drones

titan-aerospace-solara-50-640x353Facebook, that massive social utility company that is complicit in just about everything internet-related, recently announced that it is seeking to acquire Titan Aerospace. This company is famous for the development of UAVs, the most recent of which is their solar powered Solara 50. In what they describe as “bringing internet access to the underconnected,” their aim is to use an army of Solara’s to bring wireless internet access to the roughly 5 billion people who live without it worldwide.

Titan Aerospace has two products – the Solara 50 and Solara 60 – which the company refers to as “atmospheric satellites.” Both aircraft are powered by a large number of solar cells, have a service ceiling of up to 20,000 meters (65,000 feet) and then circle over a specific region for up to five years. This of length of service is based on the estimated lifespan of the on-board lithium-ion batteries that are required for night-time operation.

solara-50-titan-640x320The high altitude is important, as the FAA only regulates airspace up to 18,000 meters (60,000 feet). Above that, pretty much anything goes, which is intrinsic if you’re a company that is looking to do something incredibly audacious and soaked in self-interest. As an internet company and social utility, Facebook’s entire business model is based on continued expansion. Aiming to blanket the world in wireless access would certainly ensure that much, so philanthropy isn’t exactly the real aim here!

Nevertheless, once these atmospheric satellites are deployed, there is a wide range of possible applications to be had. Facebook is obviously interested in internet connectivity, but mapping, meteorology, global positioning, rapid response to disasters and wildfires, and a whole slew of other scientific and military applications would also be possible. As for what level of connectivity Facebook hopes to provide with these drones, it’s too early to say.

internetHowever, TechCrunch reports that Facebook would launch 11,000 Solara 60 drones. Their coverage would begin with Africa, and then spread out from there. There’s no word on how fast these connections might be, nor how much such a connection would cost per user. Perhaps more importantly, there’s also no word on how Facebook intends to connect these 11,000 satellites to the internet, though it is obvious that Facebook would need to build a series of ground stations.

Many of these might have to be built in very remote and very hard to administer areas, which would also require fiber optic cables running from them to hook them up to the internet. In addition, Titan hasn’t produced a commercial UAV yet and have confined themselves to technology demonstrations. What they refer to as “initial commercial operations” will start sometime in 2015, which is perhaps this is why Facebook is only paying $60 million for Titan, rather than the $19 billion it paid for WhatsApp.

Google_Loon_-_Launch_EventAs already noted, this move is hardly purely altruistic. In many ways, Facebook is a victim of its own success, as its rapid, early growth quickly became impossible to maintain. Acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp were a savvy moves to bring in a few hundred million more users, but ultimately they were nothing more than stopgap measures. Bringing the next billion users online and into Facebook’s monopolistic grasp will be a very hard task, but one which it must figure out if it wants its stock not to plummet.

To be fair, this idea is very similar to Google’s Project Loon, a plan that involves a series of high-altitude, solar-powered hot air balloons that would provide wireless to roughly two-thirds of the worlds population. The idea was unveiled back in June of 2013 and has since begun testing in New Zealand. And given their hold on the market in the developed world, bringing broadband access to the developing world is seen like the next logical step for companies like Verizon, Time Warner, Comcast, and every other internet and telecom provider.

Wireless-Internet-1One can only imagine the kind of world our children and grandchildren will be living in, when virtually everyone on the planet (and keeping in mind that there will be between 9 and 11 billion of them by that time) will be able to communicate instantaneously with each other. The sheer amount of opinions exchanged, information shared, and background noise produced is likely to make today’s world seem quiet, slow and civilized by comparison!

Incidentally, I may need to call a  lawyer as it seems that someone has been ripping off my ideas… again! Before reading up on this story, the only time I ever heard the name Titan Aerospace was in a story… MY STORY! Yes, in the Legacies universe, the principal developer of space ships and aerospace fighters carried this very name. They say its a guilty pleasure when stuff you predict comes true when you are writing about it. But really, if you can’t cash in on it, what’s the point?

Consider yourself warned, Titan! J.J. Abrams may have gotten off the hook with that whole Revolution show of his, but you are not nearly as rich and powerful… yet! 😉 And the meantime, be sure to check out these videos of Titan’s Solar 50 and Google’s Project Loon below:

Titan Aerospace Solara 50:


Project Loon:


Source:
extremetech.com

The Future is Bright: Positive Trends to Look For in 2014

Colourful 2014 in fiery sparklersWith all of the world’s current problems, poverty, underdevelopment, terrorism, civil war, and environmental degradation, it’s easy to overlook how things are getting better around the world. Not only do we no longer live in a world where superpowers are no longer aiming nuclear missiles at each other and two-thirds of the human race live beneath totalitarian regimes; in terms of health, mortality, and income, life is getting better too.

So, in honor of the New Year and all our hopes for a better world, here’s a gander at how life is improving and is likely to continue…

1. Poverty is decreasing:
The population currently whose income or consumption is below the poverty line – subsisting on less than $1.25 a day –  is steadily dropping. In fact, the overall economic growth of the past 50 years has been proportionately greater than that experienced in the previous 500. Much of this is due not only to the growth taking place in China and India, but also Brazil, Russia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, while developing nations complain about debt crises and ongoing recession, the world’s poorest areas continue to grow.

gdp-growth-20132. Health is improving:
The overall caloric consumption of people around the world is increasing, meaning that world hunger is on the wane. Infant mortality, a major issue arising from poverty, and underdevelopment, and closely related to overpopulation, is also dropping. And while rates of cancer continue to rise, the rate of cancer mortality continue to decrease. And perhaps biggest of all, the world will be entering into 2014 with several working vaccines and even cures for HIV (of which I’ve made many posts).

3. Education is on the rise:
More children worldwide (especially girls) have educational opportunities, with enrollment increasing in both primary and secondary schools. Literacy is also on the rise, with the global rate reaching as high as 84% by 2012. At its current rate of growth, global rates of literacy have more than doubled since 1970, and the connections between literacy, economic development, and life expectancy are all well established.

literacy_worldwide4. The Internet and computing are getting faster:
Ever since the internet revolution began, connection speeds and bandwidth have been increasing significantly year after year. In fact, the global average connection speed for the first quarter of 2012 hit 2.6 Mbps, which is a 25 percent year-over-year gain, and a 14 percent gain over the fourth quarter of 2011. And by the second quarter of 2013, the overall global average peak connection speed reached 18.9 Mbps, which represented a 17 percent gan over 2012.

And while computing appears to be reaching a bottleneck, the overall increase in speed has increased by a factor of 260,000 in the past forty years, and storage capacity by a factor of 10,000 in the last twenty. And in terms of breaking the current limitations imposed by chip size and materials, developments in graphene, carbon nanotubes, and biochips are promising solutions.

^5. Unintended pregnancies are down:
While it still remains high in the developing regions of the world, the global rate of unintended pregnancies has fallen dramatically in recent years. In fact, between 1995 and 2008, of 208 billion pregnancies surveyed in a total of 80 nations, 41 percent of the pregnancies were unintended. However, this represents a drop of 29 percent in the developed regions surveyed and a 20 percent drop in developing regions.

The consequences of unintended pregnancies for women and their families is well established, and any drop presents opportunities for greater health, safety, and freedom for women. What’s more, a drop in the rate of unwanted pregnancies is surefire sign of socioeconomic development and increasing opportunities for women and girls worldwide.

gfcdimage_06. Population growth is slowing:
On this blog of mine, I’m always ranting about how overpopulation is bad and going to get to get worse in the near future. But in truth, that is only part of the story. The upside is while the numbers keep going up, the rate of increase is going down. While global population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion by 2050 and 10.1 billion by 2100, this represents a serious slowing of growth.

If one were to compare these growth projections to what happened in the 20th century, where population rose from 1 billion to just over 6, they would see that the rate of growth has halved. What’s more, rates of population growth are expecting to begin falling in Asia by 2060 (one of the biggest contributors to world population in the 20th century), in Europe by 2055, and the Caribbean by 2065.

Population_curve.svgIn fact, the only region where exponential population growth is expected to happen is Africa, where the population of over 1 billion is expected to reach 4 billion by the end of the 21st century. And given the current rate of economic growth, this could represent a positive development for the continent, which could see itself becoming the next powerhouse economy by the 2050s.

7. Clean energy is getting cheaper:
While the price of fossil fuels are going up around the world, forcing companies to turn to dirty means of oil and natural gas extraction, the price of solar energy has been dropping exponentially. In fact, the per capita cost of this renewable source of energy ($ per watt) has dropped from a high of $80 in 1977 to 0.74 this past year. This represents a 108 fold decrease in the space of 36 years.

solar_array1And while solar currently comprises only a quarter of a percent of the planet’s electricity supply, its total share grew by 86% last year. In addition, wind farms already provide 2% of the world’s electricity, and their capacity is doubling every three years. At this rate of increase, solar, wind and other renewables are likely to completely offset coal, oil and gas in the near future.

Summary:
In short, things are looking up, even if they do have a long way to go. And a lot of what is expected to make the world a better place is likely to happen this year. Who knows which diseases we will find cures for? Who knows what inspirational leaders will come forward? And who knows what new and exciting inventions will be created, ones which offer creative and innovative solutions to our current problems?

Who knows? All I can say is that I am eager to find out!

Additional Reading: unstats.un.org, humanprogress.org, mdgs.un.org

Climate Crisis: “Carbon Buster” Bricks

carbon_busterReducing our “carbon footprint” as a society – i.e. finding ways to consume less energy and generate less pollution – is at an all time high in the industrialized world. But for researchers and scientists hoping to avert the worst effects of Climate Change, the real challenge is finding ways to meet human needs that will either be carbon-neutral, or that consume more than they create.

This is the logic behind process like Carbon Capture, the “Smog Vacuum” and now, carbon negative building materials such as the “Carbon Buster”. Basically, it’s a brick that’s partially composed  of wood from old doors and windows (35% to be exact). In addition, it contains nasty pollutants that used to go into the air. But most important of all, more CO2 is locked inside than was emitted during the brick’s production and transport.

carbon_buster1The block is manufactured by a company in the east of England known as Lignacite, a company that has been making products from wood for 65 years. Lignacite recently partnered with another company named Carbon 8, another Suffolk-based company that converts noxious fumes from waste incinerators and combined with CO2, cement and sand to create aggregate.

To create the bricks, this aggregate is mixed with wood shavings from Lignacite’s plant, and Carbon Busters are born. Each one is composed of 50% recycled material and locks in about 14 kg (31 pounds) of carbon dioxide, which includes the CO2 the original trees took in during photosynthesis, and the CO2 captured in the aggregate-making process.

Carbon_Negative_CementGranted, the bricks aren’t exactly aesthetically appealing. But they are relatively lightweight, suitable for even the biggest construction projects, and more fire-resistant than blocks made from stone, which crack and crumble at high temperatures. Since the wood inside these bricks is not exposed to oxygen, they will not burn, but simply calcify and blacken when exposed to fire.

Giles de Lotbiniere, Lignacite’s chairman, claims that so far, roughly 600 homes have been built in the Suffolk area near where the Lignacite plant is situated. He also indicated that they sell at a 5% premium compared to conventional bricks. And while there is currently resistance to using aggregate and wood-based materials on an international scale, de Lothbiniere believes the market will expand in coming years:

Over the years, we’ve wondered if we want to continue making blocks out of wood. Each time we’ve found another reason to do it. Now, with climate change, we’ve found another one.

carbon_buster2But of course, the market for carbon negative materials is already becoming an interesting and diversified place. Just two years ago, Material ConneXion unveiled its own carbon-negative product – a carbon-negative cement composed of magnesium silicate that not only requires less heating, but it is also able to absorb CO2 from the environment as it hardens.

And then there’s Hemcrete, a bio-composite, thermal walling material made from hemp, lime and water that represents an alternative to fiberglass as an insulating material. Much like these other carbon-negative materials, more CO2 is locked-up in the process of growing and harvesting the hemp than is released in the production, and the product is 100% recyclable.

Taken together, materials like these are likely to revolution the construction industry in the coming years, an industry which currently accounts for roughly 38% of the CO2 emissions in the industrialized world.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, inhabitat.com, (2), freshome.com

Visualizing the Internet

Submarine fiber optic cables around the worldOrdinarily, when one talks about visualizing cyberspace, they think of massive neon-structures or cityscapes made up of cascading symbols of data. While these images – the creation of writers like William Gibson and film makers like the Waschowski Brothers – are certainly visually appealing, they are not exactly realistic, and hardly do the real thing justice.

Thankfully, a recent article over at policymic has presented us with a new and interesting way of visualizing this thing we call the World Wide Web. By compiling images of the various deep-sea cables that allow us to transmit information at the speed of light, author Laura Dimon reminds us that while the internet may be made up of trillions of bits of data moving about at any given moment, it is dependent upon real-world physical connections.

Submarine Cable Map 2012And these connections are extensive, with more than 550,000 fiber optic cables running along the ocean floor that are responsible for transmitting trillions upon trillions of interactions per day. According to the Washington Postthese cables “wrap around the globe to deliver emails, web pages, other electronic communications and phone calls from one continent to another.”

But surprisingly, few people seem to truly appreciate this. In an age of WiFi where more and more networks are being added to our public airwaves every day, the perception that all this information is something ethereal seems to have become rooted. Luckily, real-world events – such as the severing of several Seacom cables off the coast of Alexandria back in March – have managed to remind people just how grounded and potentially vulnerable the internet is.

Global Internet Map 2012Given our immense and increasing reliance on the internet for business, personal communications, entertainment and shopping, one would that we as a people would possess at least a passing knowledge of how it works. But as Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chair, claimed in his book The New Digital Age: “The internet is among the few things humans have built that they don’t truly understand.”

Luckily, Laura provides a breakdown in her article which is a good start:

It consists of tens of thousands of interconnected networks run by service providers, individual companies, universities, and governments. There are three major parts to its construction: the networks that physically connect to each other (with about 12 that are particularly significant); the data-storing centers; and the architecture that lies in between. That is where it gets really interesting.

Global Internet Map 2011And just in case this doesn’t provide a clear picture, there are numerous images that have been created by organizations like Telecom Maps and The Fiber Optic Association. These show just how immense, extensive, and crisscrossed the cables that bring us all our emails, videos, blog feeds, and ability to surf are.

In addition, they also remind us that the historic gap between the developed and underdeveloped world persists into the information age. For every network of cables, there are cable landing stations that connect the deep sea lines to the continent they are servicing. As the maps show, Europe has more international network capacity than any other world region.

Global Voice Traffic Map 2010

They also remind us that the once undisputed technological supremacy of the United States has been slowly eroding as humanity enters the 21st Century. This has been especially apparent within the last decade, where localized service providers have eschewed the US as a central hub and begun to connect their networks to other countries and regions.

Fascinating, and educational. I hope someday to be able to use these sorts of visualizations in the classroom, as a means of letting students know what enables all their surfing habits. I imagine most of them will be surfing on their smartphones as I speak!

Sources: policymic.com, telegeography.com, thefoa.org