Facebook realises building aircraft is not a core competence

Social media giant Facebook has come to the conclusion that it might be better to leave the building of aircraft to aircraft-builders.

Facebook has been very active in exploring novel ways of bringing connectivity to people who don’t have it for a while. In 2016 it unveiled a few initiatives, including the Terragraph fixed wireless access project and the even more ambitious Aquila programme, focused on using huge, high-altitude drones to bring connectivity to remote locations.

At the time nobody was building the kind of drones Facebook needed to deliver the latter, so it decided to have a go at it itself, despite having zero experience in the matter. On one level that seemed like the kind of buccaneering, can-do approach we admire Silicon Valley companies for, but in hindsight it’s not clear Facebook fully thought it through.

So now we get the announcement that, despite having been apparently committed to Aquila a year ago, Facebook has decided get out of the aircraft-building game and close its UK facility. Facebook has been keen to stress that Aquila and its participation in the high-altitude platform station (HAPS) are still happening, it’s just letting companies like Airbus focus on the planes themselves, which seems fair enough.

The spin seems to be that all the stuff Facebook has done so far has seeded the market and provided the catalyst it apparently needed to take this sort of thing seriously. That may be true it seems unlikely that this was the plan from the start. But regardless, we shouldn’t pillory companies like Facebook for continuing to dare to fail fast, and welcome any contribution to the broader comms R&D effort.

Vodafone looks to make the skies safer from drones

Vodafone is conducting a series of trials for air traffic control drone tracking, using 4G Internet of Things (IoT) technology to protect aircraft from catastrophic accidents or nefarious characters from flying waywardly.

The opportunity for drones is massive, but so are the challenges. Analysis from the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR) project estimates that by 2050 drones could log more than 250 million flying hours per year over densely populated areas of the European Union, seven times the cumulative annual flying hours of conventional crewed aircraft, contributing more than €15 billion to the economy. Companies like Amazon and UPS are starting to get excited about the technology, but there are also monstrous challenges in place for regulators.

For drones to travel beyond the users line of sight, there will need to be a very stringent regulatory framework in place, and also a highly resilient means of tracking the devices. This is where one of the problems lie. Drones are generally too small to be tracked by radar, while it is generally deemed as too easy to hijack or compromise GPS. Working alongside the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Vodafone is building the case for its IoT network to be the basis of this tracking and management system.

While it is very early days for the moment, these regulations could be based on a risk management system. Let’s say you are flying your drone around the park, in this scenario you would not have to log the flight plan, but Amazon would have to for its deliveries. Using machine learning algorithms, Vodafone would be able to monitor the thousands of devices flying around the UK, searching for variances to the logged flight plans and also taking control of drones which are wandering into no-go areas.

Using a Radio Positioning System (RPS), featuring a 4G modem and SIM embedded within each drone, Vodafone should be able to (in theory) track the drones in real-time with up to 50 metre accuracy, geofence certain restricted areas and create a SIM-based e-identification and owner registration system. Of course, this is a very early stage of development but considering the pace of innovation it will need to be developed quickly. Should Vodafone prove the trials are successful, it has also said the system will be open sourced to allow other operators to create their own system within their markets.

But where will Vodafone make money? It seems the telco is working to build the business case for cellular as basis of IoT tracking instead of GPS. Vodafone already has a reasonable presence in the enterprise world, but such forays could take it further into the consumer world, which is more reliant on GPS than mobile tracking. This is of course only speculation for the moment, as we were told work is focused on proving the platform and encouraging growth of the sub-sector first. Monetization will come later, but there needs to be something to monetize first.

Drones have been promised to the world continuously, not just by the innovators but also the dreamers of science fiction. The reality of this technology is riddled with red-tape however as crashes in the air will prove to be a lot more dangerous than crashes on the ground. Complications also arise when it comes to the blue-sky thinkers of the industry. Right now Amazon might be focusing on making sure you get your new jumper as quickly as possible, but it won’t be too long before passenger drones become a realistic talking point.

For such ideas to become reality, there will need to be a very stringent regulatory framework in place. Figuring out how to track the devices might be a good place to start.

Huawei shows flying cars might not be that far away

Pessimism from the telcos doesn’t seemed to have dampened the enthusiasm of Huawei, as the team demonstrate flying taxis might be doable sooner than we think.

Whenever you imagine the future there are numerous images which come to mind. Whether its holographs or robots running around everywhere, possibly more common is the idea of flying cars. This however has always been a pipe dream, but Huawei has shown it might not be as far away as we think.

Working alongside Chinese firm Ehang, the team brought a prototype of a single person, driverless, flying drone to London. It isn’t exactly what you imagined when it comes to a flying car, but it is a pretty impressive piece of kit. Due to licensing restrictions (the Excel is very close to London City Airport), the pair weren’t able to show us the ‘car’ in full flight here in London, but there was a video link to China where it took off and did a 200 metre round-trip.

Using four 4K cameras and four LiDARs, the ‘car’ can squeeze in, and we mean squeeze in, one passenger weighing less than 120kg, and make a trip of up to 41km, travelling at speeds of up to 100mph. The drone will go up to a maximum of 300 metres, of course depending on new standards and regulations. The initial idea will be as an alternative for taxis, but who knows where it could head next.

Standards and regulations can often be seen as a bit of a stumbling block of course, but that might not be the case here. During the conference, Huawei also announced the Digital Sky Initiative, a programme to spur on drone applications and enable the low airspace digitized economy via enhanced low airspace network coverage.

The Digital Sky Initiative will take place over three stages. Firstly, setting up connected drone application demo sites and promotes standardization of cellular-network-based management. Secondly, field tests and aims to achieve small-scale commercial use. And finally, delivering low airspace digital networks into commercial use, and provide network coverage for at least 30% of low airspace. Deployment in five countries might sound ambitious, but there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes.

The demonstration by Huawei and Ehang at the show highlighted it is technically possible, and the team plan to bring out a second prototype next year, but there are also other initiatives going one elsewhere. Uber, for instance, is working hard to bring its own version of the flying taxi to Dubai in the next year or two.

Taking over the skies will be immensely complicated from a management perspective, so don’t expect such a trend to be available for consumer vehicles in the near future, or ever, as there are too many idiots out there. And the connectivity challenge has not been fully satisfied, this will probably have to wait for 5G in most places. Aviation rules still need to be changed, and the consumer might not be ready for such a step forward as driverless, flying cars.

That said, the future doesn’t seem that far away anymore. Here’s a vid we took of the presentation.

 

BT and Facebook give cheeky TIP for start-ups of the future

BT and Facebook have announced the three winning start-ups who will be admitted into the UK Telecom Infra Project Ecosystem Acceleration Centre (TEAC).

The Telecom Infra Project (TIP) has primarily been a playground for the big boys to date, all trying to solve the problem of ubiqtuous connectivity for their own self-serving reasons, but more recently there has been a search to bring start-ups into the community. The winners in the UK were KETS Quantum, Unmanned Life, and Zeetta Networks.

The TEAC initiative sounds a bit like a Dragon’s Den style audition in which start-ups pitch their credentials for admittance into the inner circle. We’re focusing on the UK here, but it should be worth noting these competitions are going on all over the world, and there are some substantial rewards. The start-ups will gain access to more than $170 million in venture capital funding and mentorship opportunities from UK investors, as well as the opportunity to rub shoulders with the other members which include some of the largest players in the tech game.

So who are the winners?

UnManned Life

UnManned Life started life in London in 2015, but has grown quickly to hold a presence in Brussels, Paris, San Francisco and Mumbai. The focus here is Autonomy-as-a-Service to manage unmanned ground vehicles, aerial vehicles and other robotics systems through a single interface.

Right now the solutions which the company offers are pretty basic (if you could call them basic), focusing on parcel sorting, smart factory solutions and surveillance inspections, but the team has sky high ambitions. Drones are an area which seem to be quite a focus here.

Recently at a BT conference, the team unveiled Drones-as-a-Service, which makes uses of MEC Servers to remove the latency challenge which might be associated with drones. Data packets the drones are sending are immediately re-routed to Drone Control Application Servers, which creates a closed loop where specific data for autonomous flight is sent directly to where it needs to be and all other data packets travel to the EPC. It removes the need for EPC approval means that all data reaches its desired destination sooner. Neat.

KETS Quantum

KETS Quantum is a bit more on the nerdy side of tech. There aren’t any drones to play around with here, these guys are security buffs.

KETS has developed a range of technologies for quantum-secured communications, including quantum key distribution (QKD) and quantum random number generation (QRNG). It focuses on the deep and dark world of data encryption, but more specifically the challenge of our current methods been rendered useless by the improvement of processing power and the introduction of quantum computing.

Most encryption techniques work by hiding the key to read the message within very complex mathematical problems. The difficulty of the problems usually mean it is almost impossible to crack the message, but advances in compute power have made some encryption software more vulnerable. Such a challenge will ensure companies like KETS will have a place in the ecosystem for a while.

Zeetta Networks

And just to take things up a level, Zeetta Networks make KETS and UnManned Life seem like high school jocks. Who doesn’t like a bit of Software Defined Networking.

Zeetta Networks started life in the University of Bristol focusing in the design, development and marketing of Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualisation (NFV) solutions. The main product for the team, NetOS, focuses on creating a centralised view extended physical networks and enabling the construction of virtual network slices.

The team are currently involved in a number of different projects including the Bristol Is Open smart city initiative, at Ashton Gate Stadium open wifi venture and various other 5G orientated schemes.