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Forget the Internet, Brace for Skynet

Steve Saunders

Greetings. I have seen the future of global communications. And because I'm such a nice person, I've decided I’m going to share it with you. (You can thank me later.)

It consists of a global network of thousands of ultra-high-altitude (65,000 feet, or 13 miles high) solar-powered drones, equipped with some variation of next-gen microwave wireless equipment, delivering broadband capacity to the entire planet.

I'm calling this drone network "Skynet," after the antagonist in the Terminator movies, and because I suspect that it might eventually be equally destructive (to existing telecom operator business models, that is).

Because when the various pieces of the technology puzzle that are required to make Skynet take off come together, there’s a high probability that everything you think you know about telecom will change, forever. Satellite comms? Cooked. Fiber networks and their operators? Eviscerated. Copper? By 2024, it'll be just another word for a Brit policeman. Think about this for a minute, and allow the implications to properly sink in. That's right, everything you think you know about high-capacity communications, and the current hegemony of traditional telco operators, gone (poof!).

Talk about your disruptive technology, eh?

How long will it take for the Skynet vision to become a reality? History gives us some guidance here. Science fiction legend and turkey doppelgänger Arthur C. Clarke predicted the advent of a global satellite communications network in 1945, but it took almost 20 years for it to become a reality. And a two-decade integer feels about right, to me, before the drone communications revolution is complete.

A Drone, Yesterday
Source: Titan Aerospace
Source: Titan Aerospace

Several important technology milestones need to be reached along the way. The drones that will make up Skynet have a lot more in common with satellites than the flippy-flappy helicopter drone thingies that the popular press is fixated on right now. They’re really effing BIG, for one thing. And, like satellites, they go up, and stay up, pretty much indefinitely. For that to happen, we need two things: lighter, higher-capacity wireless gear; and reliable, hyper-efficient solar tech.

So some work still needs to be done on the physics of Skynet; but not that much work, and certainly not anything beyond the reach of hard-working American (or Chinese, or Chinese-American) engineering types. Unlike the Skynet of Arnie's Terminator films, we’re not talking about science fiction here.

The maximum payload of the heavy drones being developed by Google's Titan Aerospace unit is maybe 70 pounds, though 200 pounds should be achievable within a few years. Cellular technology is much too heavy and slow to be used for Skynet connectivity, but low-power (30-35 watt), high-capacity (gigabit plus), high-frequency (8-24 GHz) technology – based on inexpensive WiFi radio technology – that weighs a lot less than that limit is already under development, according to Jaime Fink, a wireless guru who serves as Chief Product Officer at Mimosa Networks Inc. , a high-capacity wireless broadband startup.

Of course, the radios will need to be built to withstand extreme temperatures, play nice with GPS, and act as a two-way transceiver to connect back to the Internet on the ground. Because there ain’t no backhaul in space!

Similarly, solar tech (which, let’s be honest, has all been a bit shit until now) needs to come on a ways before we can really trust these drones to stay up in the stratosphere where they belong. But everything points to that happening, as well.

That said, the most interesting part of the drone comms story doesn’t have as much to do with technology as people, and the companies they work for, as well as the regulatory/legal shenanigans surrounding the knotty issue of wireless spectrum allocation, and the small matter of who owns the "air rights" up at 65,000 feet.

Right now, the two companies making the most aggressive moves in the next-gen drone comms market are Facebook and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG). (See Facebook, Google in New Drone Race.) That's partly because they employ lots of people who sit around playing gemmed and pondering the "future and stuff," but much more because they have really vast amounts of money to throw at projects like this. But that doesn't mean they're necessarily the best qualified companies to run the Skynet. I mean, do you really want the future of the world’s communications in the hands of an Internet search firm and a social media company? (To paraphrase The Byrds: "Sixteen miles… but when they come down…").

I don't. And a lot of lawmakers and regulators probably feel the same way. But that doesn't mean they’re going to stop Google or Facebook from launching squadrons of heavy drones over North America. In fact, according to one source close to the FAA, the general feeling in the corridors of power there right now is that they can't afford not to let them do what they want in the skies over North America, lest all that drone comms money and innovation head overseas.

As usual, the "media" (consumer, business, and tech) have completely and utterly missed this story, focusing their coverage on the military and consumer applications of drone technology (an extra allocation of "stupid points" go to the editors of Wired Magazine for rejecting our drone communications pitch when we dropped it in their lap earlier this year, in response to their request for important and original technology predictions… way to suck at this prognostication thing, Wiretards).

So, with this article, Light Reading is going on the record as the first publication to predict this future. (I'll be printing this column out and burying it in a lead-lined time capsule later, obviously.)

And this is just the beginning of our coverage of this market.

As befits our role as the leading authority in the telecom market, we plan to be the central point of information on this market, as it develops (Wired Magazine gets to continue being the authority on the Internet of Things That Don’t Matter, or IoTDM).

Later this year, we're launching Light Droning (www.lightdroning.com), a new Light Reading site all about drone comms. And in February 2015, Light Reading editor Dan Jones -- who actually predicted the above-the-clouds comms revolution all the way back in 2005 -- and myself will be hosting a conference on the future of drone communications in San Diego. It’s called DroneComm 2015; please drop me a line at [email protected] if you want to speak at this event, or just want to come along.

Meantime, my friends, if you want to see the future of telecommunications, look up.

— Stephen Saunders, Founder and CEO, Light Reading

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10/15/2014 | 8:28:58 AM
Putting aside bandwidth efficiency of microwave, interferrence between them, and a host of other issues. Does anyone really believe that we humans can make machines reliable enough to stay in the air ? Yes satellites stay in place (if geo stationary) beacuse of gravity doing the work, but if we build machines with moving parts they are far lower reliability and they will fail (often I might add). If anything our advances in technology have shown us that over time our technologies have become less and less reliable. This is in part because we (and I mean the global we) are designing systems to be disposable.
10/15/2014 | 8:32:39 AM
Are we at light reading or not ?
Don't ever say that Optical communication will be over, we are at lightreading, this site started as a Optical Networking news and industry coverage site. And that's why I joined it in 2000. :)


Anyway, now being serious, this is indeed disruptive, but honestly fiber optics are here to stay for a long time just because of the physical limitations involved in wireless communications. The medium cannot handle the same bandwidth as in fibers, so they are here to stay.

10/15/2014 | 9:15:37 AM
Drone goal
Drones - they're certainly disruptive: 

Serbia v Albania ends in riot after drone flag stunt – video

10/15/2014 | 9:20:46 AM
Re: Reliable
The teams that Facebook and Google bought started with the aim of building solar platforms that stay up for a long time.
10/15/2014 | 9:31:25 AM
Re: Are we at light reading or not ?
There are places in the world where the fiber optics never happened, hence part of the search for alternatives.
10/15/2014 | 9:52:54 AM
Re: Are we at light reading or not ?
There are places where mobile newtorks never happened.

but going back to our reality, do you really think that for high bandwidth long haul transmission any wireless technology, be it satelite or drones or whatever, will be able to cope with the increasing bandwitdh demands? 

I think "skynet" will bring ubiquity, but for the really high speed transfers required for the future, we still need the good old optical backbone.
10/15/2014 | 10:14:23 AM
Re: Are we at light reading or not ?
See Iridium.


10/15/2014 | 11:50:33 AM
Re: Are we at light reading or not ?
"Almost anything is possible. " -- Ned Yost
10/15/2014 | 1:07:31 PM
Re: Are we at light reading or not ?
Well, Intel and Qualcomm are interested where drones are going  in the IoT sphere. And Facebook and Google have been working on it for a while.

Should we just ignore that?
10/15/2014 | 1:24:19 PM
Re: Are we at light reading or not ?
Google certainly has its fingers in a lot of pies these days. If it's getting into drone networking, it'll be interesting to see if it is more serious and aggressive about that sector than it has been about fiber broadband, which it still kind of treats as a hobby.
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