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Tether-Tenna demonstration
Yael Maguire, who heads the Facebook Connectivity Lab, shows off the Tether-Tenna system during Facebook’s F8 developers conference in San Jose, Calif. (Facebook Video)

Facebook is adding tethered helicopters known as “Tether-Tennas” to its toolkit for widening internet access around the globe, even in emergency situations.

The Tether-Tenna concept calls for sending a car-sized helicopter equipped with telecommunications equipment hundreds of feet up in the air, to provide connectivity in areas where wireless capacity has been lost due to a disaster or other emergency.

A tether keeps the copter anchored to the ground and provides the cable links for electricity and data, theoretically allowing the Tether-Tenna to stay on duty for months at a time.

“We call this a type of insta-infrastructure,” Yael Maguire, the head of the Facebook Connectivity Lab, said today during Facebook’s F8 developers conference in San Jose, Calif.

He said the system has been tested for up to 24 hours of continuous operation, but hasn’t yet been deployed in a real-world emergency situation.

“There’s lots of challenges we have to work out,” Maguire explained. “It’s a high-voltage system that has to support kilovolts of power that go up through the tether. It has to survive through very high winds. We have to avoid things like lightning.”

Despite the caveats, he said Tether-Tenna could be “just a few years out” from deployment.

Maguire also gave an update on two other frontiers in Facebook’s efforts to widen internet connectivity: the Terragraph project, which uses strategically placed millimeter-wave antennas to fill in the gaps in urban wireless coverage; and the Aquila project, which involves sending up high-altitude drones for internet connectivity.

Facebook’s prototype Aquila drone was damaged last June during its first flight, but Maguire didn’t mention that setback or anything else about the drone’s flight test schedule. Instead, he focused on how much improvement has been made in the equipment that would be used for aerial networking.

Over the past year, Facebook has upped its data rates from 20 gigabits per second to 36 Gbps across a distance of 13 kilometers (8 miles) during ground testing.

“We beat our own world record,” Maguire said.

He said the project also achieved 16 Gbps speeds in a test of data transmission from the ground to a Cessna test plane, and 80 Gbps over the 13-kilometer distance using an optical crosslink.

As for Terragraph, Facebook has deployed millimeter-wave antennas around San Jose to boost broadband rates to between 12 and 25 times what’s achievable using traditional Wi-Fi access points, Maguire said. The company used computer vision to optimize the placement of antennas, based on a virtual 3-D visualization of San Jose’s cityscape.

Maguire said he expected Terragraph’s commercial deployment to be, “no pun intended, around the corner,” while the Aquila project may require up to 10 years of development.

Whether Facebook boosts connectivity on its own or in league with partners isn’t yet completely clear. But Facebook’s executives is clearly anxious to make it easier for their customers to share video and other broadband goodies effortlessly, no matter where they are.

“We want to make it so you don’t care how many bars you have,” Maguire said. “You are just connected.”

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