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What might a search engine, a social network and an online shopping site have in common? They could all want to make – and fly – drones.
Unmanned aerial vehicles once fell largely into two categories: those made ready in top-secret military hangars for attacks on foreign soil; and those assembled on the kitchen tables of enthusiastic hobbyists.
Now internet companies are beginning to experiment with the next generation of UAVs.
Facebook and Google have bought drone manufacturers this year. This is part of their effort to bring internet connectivity to remote parts of the world using drones instead of satellites as telecom relays. Amazon made headlines last Christmas by announcing that it aimed to begin delivery by drone within five years.
Christian Sanz, chief executive and founder of Skycatch, a drone operating platform, says many of the components it takes to build a drone have been commoditised, making it easier for companies outside the aerospace sector to produce their own UAVs.
Mr Sanz thinks drones will become more mainstream as they become more robust and the software it takes to fly them develops.
Yael Maguire is an engineering director for the Facebook Connectivity Lab, which he joined after founding his own company and doing a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The lab is part of Internet.org, a Facebook-lead initiative to make affordable internet available to the two-thirds of the world that is not online. Mr Maguire and his team want to improve access to the internet by a range of means, from cutting the amount of data transmitted over networks, to using drones, satellites and lasers.
Facebook turned to drones because they are a “very pragmatic choice” with the benefits of satellites at a cheaper price, Mr Maguire says. “The tantalising aspect of drones is they may be able to offer the same capabilities of satellites” for much less cost.
Drones are not without their problems. Facebook wants to keep them airborne for as long as possible, to give consistent internet access and to make them easier to operate, by using solar power as fuel. To do this, it must make the battery that stores the power at night very light.
“We’re trying to design a system effectively the same size as a traditional aircraft but which weighs 10 to 100 times less,” Mr Maguire says.
To do this, the social network has bought the small engineering company of Ascenta in Somerset, England. Ascenta helped British defence technology company Qinetiq start its Zephyr drone programme a year ago.
Google has also built its drone team by acquisition, buying Titan Aerospace, a New Mexico-based start-up with about 20 employees. Its primary aim is, like that of Facebook, to bring the internet to far-flung corners of the world. It is also experimenting with high-altitude balloons as relays.
Jonathan Downey, chief executive of Airware, another drone platform, says he welcomes more companies such as Facebook coming from outside the aerospace sector into the drone market.
He dismisses Amazon’s plans to make deliveries of products by drones as a “gimmick”, noting that it was announced on the eve of the biggest online shopping day of the year. Even if such a delivery scheme were technologically possible, regulators could still object for fear of the unmanned aircraft dropping its precious load on passersby, or colliding with aircraft and power lines.
In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration ruled in June that it would not allow such drones to deliver packages.
A US government watchdog recently warned that the FAA would not meet its deadline of September 2015 to provide drones with regular access to US air space, rather than someone flying a drone of their own over their land, which is allowed at present.