Facebook should test its internet drones over North Korea

Just over a week ago in the Arizona Desert, Facebook’s solar powered Aquila drone lifted off for the first time and stayed aloft for more than 90 minutes. Facebook posted video of the launch here and told of its great ambitions for Aquila.

“When complete, Aquila will be able to circle a region up to 60 miles in diameter, beaming connectivity down from an altitude of more than 60,000 feet using laser communications and millimeter wave systems. Aquila is designed to be hyper efficient, so it can fly for up to three months at a time. The aircraft has the wingspan of an airliner, but at cruising speed it will consume only 5,000 watts — the same amount as three hair dryers, or a high-end microwave.” [Facebook press release]

That Mark Zuckerberg was personally present for the launch says everything about Facebook’s plans to build a fleet of drones that will “use lasers to beam down internet access to remote areas without online capacity.”

The aircraft will use free-space laser communication as a mechanism to communicate between aircraft in the fleet, and e-band technology to beam connectivity from the airplane to receivers on the ground. In essence, the plan is to create a drone system that acts as floating wifi routers to bridge the internet gaps on the ground, from the air. To do this, Aquila’s team designed and lab-tested a laser that can deliver data at 10 Gbps–approximately ten times faster the previous versions–to a target the size of a dime from more than 10 miles away. [Real Clear Life]

According to Facebook, this fleet of drones “will provide the internet to 4 billion people in sub-Saharan Africa and other remote regions that do not have access currently.”

The plane is one of a handful of new Facebook initiatives to provide Internet access to places and people who don’t have it. Just this week, the company’s Connectivity Lab published a paper describing a light-based communication technique for sending information without wires, and last year the company announced it is working on delivering Internet by satellite. [NPR]

Among these is Facebook’s Internet.org, a partnership with an international group of technology companies. Google has also made steady progress in its own deployment of Project Loon, which will use a fleet of balloons navigating through atmospheric currents. In an article published last year, the MIT Technology review estimated that Project Loon would be available in one or two years. (Note to South Korea’s NIS: balloons tethered to mountaintops south of the DMZ would conceivably be just as effective at reaching North Koreans as balloons floating through the stratosphere.)

Unfortunately, none of the articles covering the Aquila story tells us when Facebook expects to deploy its drones, or precisely where. Personally, I can’t think of a better place to deploy them than North Korea, the world’s most isolated, brutal, and militarized society.

What is apparent is that the days of North Korea’s information blockade are numbered. If Google and Facebook continue their current rate of progress, it’s reasonable to predict that information will flow more-or-less freely between North Korea and the rest of the world. Although breaking this blockade will most likely employ a variety of strategies to overwhelm the regime’s capacity to monitor, detect, censor, and jam signals, in the near future, radio broadcasts may be the least of Pyongyang’s concerns.

Years ago, North Korean society probably reached saturation point for knowing that there is more freedom and prosperity beyond the borders of their country. Simply watching South Korean DVDs and listening to American broadcasts will dispose many North Koreans to living in a society more like South Korea’s, but it will not elucidate all that their own government has done to deny them rice, peace, and freedom. It won’t break the fear, hopelessness, and isolation that prevents them from fighting for those things.

If we have more subversive, transformational, and even revolutionary goals, then our communications strategy must help North Koreans communicate and organize with one another — initially in ways that are not expressly political — until the state’s security forces become prisoners of the people.

3 Comments

  1. I’m hopeful, too, but feel some pessimism because US tech companies have been in cahoots with info-repressive regimes like China to create things like Google’s Great Firewall (and remember: Don’t Be Evil!). I can easily foresee China moving, in some way, to block the implementation of such tech at the NK border—via political pressure, economic pressure, or even military pressure. That said, I do think the overall trend is toward freer information flow in NK. It’s just going to meet a great deal of clever resistance.

  2. It would be an interesting idea, but Facebook is one of the worst offenders among the depressingly long list of western companies that are willing to jettison the entire basic moral framework of a free society the second they smell a single yuan.

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