When Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn first used the term “internet” in 1974 to describe what they and the other “Fathers of the Internet” were working towards creating, you have to wonder if they imagined their concept reaching as globally it has today. For much of the world, we take the internet and mobile access for granted. We own multiple devices that connect us to the World Wide Web and whomever we want to talk to instantly. Networks, upon networks, are literally at our fingertips giving us access to whatever we can think of. We have become so used to our rapid internet and mobile access that if a glitch happens and we lose that connection for even a few moments, frustration abounds. Yet still, nearly 43% of the world’s population has limited to no access at all.
In underdeveloped nations, only 1 in 5 people have access to the internet or mobile connectivity. For these people, they don’t have the luxury of the joys we have become so used to with our connectivity. But when emergencies occur, like storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, or even violent conflicts, not having access to these luxuries can be fatal. Emergency crews rely on being able to access vital information and relay that information to plan evacuations and save lives. Recently, in the wake of the global spread of the coronavirus, lack of internet and mobile access has led to increased cases of COVID-19 where people have not been able to get the safety information they need.
Many internet and mobile companies have been working to see that every person on Earth has access to reliable connectivity. On October 8, 2020, SoftBand subsidiary HAPSMobile and Alphabet Loon (a branch of Google’s parent company), announced that they had reached a milestone in providing LTE connectivity to areas with limited access with the use of a drone. HAPSMobile (High Altitude Platform Station) was founded in 2017 to develop a cost effective means of LTE connectivity by creating continuously flying cell towers. Alphabet officially launched their project to provide internet and mobile access to rural areas in 2013. This project became Loon which uses giant balloons with patch antennas to deliver LTE connections to users on the ground. As stated on HAPSMobile’s website, “In order to achieve our goal of offering Internet services to more people, places and things all over the world, HAPSMobile and Loon established the HAPS Alliance.”
Loon became responsible for providing the communication connectivity based on the patch antennas used in their stratosphere balloons. Meanwhile, HAPSMobile, in collaboration with California based unmanned systems manufacturer AeroVironment set out to design a drone capable of delivering Loon’s mobile connection. They had to build a drone large enough to support massive solar panels, strong enough to withstand the extreme weather of the stratosphere, and powerful enough to stay airborne for extended periods. The design HAPSMobile and AeroVironment came up with is a massive fixed wing drone called the Sunglider.
The Sunglider has a 262ft wingspan with 10 forward facing rotors spread along the front of the wings. The rotors are propelled by high energy density Lithium Ion batteries. These batteries are charged by the solar panels covering the drone’s entire wingspan, which means the Sunglider is powered with zero emissions. Weighing only 150lbs, the Sunglider has a cruising speed of 68mph, and once launched can remain in the stratosphere, more than 65,000ft above sea level, for months.
On September 21, 2020, the Sunglider was assembled in a hangar at New Mexico’s Space Port America (SpA) for its first test flight. Once the Sunglider reached its target altitude of 62,500ft it remained in the stratosphere for 15 hours before gracefully landing back at SpA. The entire time the Sunglider was in the air, it successfully supplied an LTE connection that was tested out with a historic video conference call. The call was initiated by the crew at SpA and included Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth, HAPSMobile external director Jun Murai, and none other than Vint Cerf, all of whom were at their homes throughout the world. And as Mr. Westgarth said, “This successful test represents yet another step to develop a new layer of connectivity based in the stratosphere. It is also an important step in our ongoing strategic partnership with HAPSMobile. By developing technologies to harness the opportunity of the stratosphere, we are making progress toward our shared goal of connecting unconnected and under-connected populations around the world.”