What is Google's Project SkyBender?

Google is reportedly testing a system utilizing solar-powered drones designed to deliver high-speed 5G Internet service from the sky.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Google is currently working on its Project SkyBender to deliver high-speed internet via drones.

A new Google project is testing the use of drones for high-speed Internet delivery.

The technology company is currently developing the program, codenamed Project SkyBender, to utilize solar-powered drones equipped with millimeter-wave radio transmitters that could send out next-generation 5G wireless Internet signals, the Guardian reports. Work on the project is ongoing at Spaceport America, a facility in New Mexico's Jornada del Muerto desert basin.

The spaceport, originally conceived as a hub for Virgin Galactic operations, is now shared by fellow tenants such as SpaceX and UP Aerospace, who have granted Google room to work there. The Guardian reports that Google has taken over hangar space from Virgin at a cost of $1,000 per day, and has been working on SkyBender there since last summer. Google also established its own flight control center at the facility, and has set up a series of transceivers to test the SkyBender signal reception. The Guardian further details Google’s efforts to build electronic communication installations around the facility, and the various difficulties the project faced in setting up the system.

Aside from the spaceport’s relay setup, the Google SkyBender evaluation is anchored by solar-powered drones, produced by the Google-acquired Titan Aerospace, and the Centaur optionally piloted aircraft, produced by Aurora Flight Sciences. Google would use the autonomous aircraft to send its internet signal through phased arrays and to consumer devices.

The extremely-high-frequency  waves experimented with for the project could provide data at speeds around 40 times of those that current 4G networks offer, but they are easily scattered by atmosphere, rain, fog, and foliage, leaving them with an effective range only about a tenth of that of 4G signals. Google’s project includes testing various transceivers that would extend the signals’ coverage.

The limited range means that telecommunications companies have left the millimeter-wave band largely undeveloped, creating an opportunity for Google. 

“The huge advantage of millimeter wave is access to new spectrum because the existing cellphone spectrum is overcrowded. It’s packed and there’s nowhere else to go,” Jacques Rudell, an assistant electrical engineering professor at the University of Washington, told The Guardian.

SkyBender is not Google’s first attempt at providing Internet service from the sky. Its Project Loon, officially in development since 2013, aims to provide 4G LTE internet via balloons traveling through Earth’s stratosphere. That project has been tested in New Zealand, California, and Brazil, and Google hopes Loon can eventually provide high-speed Internet to those in rural areas or in places with inconsistent coverage, as well as in the wake of disasters that would take people offline.

Additionally, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been working on the Mobile Hotspots program, a similar initiative to SkyBender that would see millimeter waves broadcast from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones. The DARPA technology would provide data speeds comparable to SkyBender, but is also still in development and would not be available to consumers.

Google has not officially announced Project SkyBender and there is no time frame for when the New Mexico testing will be completed, although Google has permission from the Federal Communications Commission to continue its desert operations through July.

Google did not comment on The Guardian report.

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