Airborne Wireless Network test gets Airborne

A few weeks ago we mentioned a fascinating new method for shovelling internet packets around the globe presently under development. Called the Airborne Wireless Network, it’s like a “mesh” network system in your home, except out in the world and on a huge scale. If it works.

The point of “mesh” communications is that devices don’t have to have the power to reach all the way back to a base station. Instead, there are many nodes in the network, and each of those is a transmitter and receiver. The device only has to reach the nearest free one, and it will route the traffic through a whole bunch of others to get the data where it needs to go.

Somewhat like the Internet itself.

With the Airborne Wireless Network, the nodes will be on commercial aircraft, of which there are many thousands in the air at any one time throughout the world. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, back in 2012 there were typically 5000 commercial aircraft in the US sky at any one time.

At the end of last month Airborne Wireless Network completed its “Proof of Concept” flight tests in – where else? – Roswell, New Mexico in the United States. There were two Boeing 767 airliners involved along with a temporary “ground station”. Results are not yet available, but I’m following this anyway because it’s the kind of thing that could help provide Internet access to broad areas of the world not yet covered.

Another is “Project Loon”. That’s a project of the research company “X”, formerly Google X, which is better known as the developer of the Google driverless car. X is led by the aptly named Astro Teller (grandson of H-Bomb creator Edward Teller).

Rather than commercial aircraft, the devices in its “mesh” will be carried by balloons floating in the stratosphere, some 18,000 metres above the ground.

There’s no particular reason why both these systems couldn’t work at the same time, either independently or perhaps in concert. The commercial aircraft model would seem likely to offer denser coverage over more developed parts of the world, while balloons could be concentrated (to the extent that they can be controlled) over more remote areas.

As always, smart people are continuing to develop better ways to allow the rest of us to communicate.