September 6, 2017
Facebook developed mapping technology that has allowed it to create a data map of the human population in 23 countries so far. The map can zero in on any man-made structure as close as five meters, in any country on earth. Facebook says it is using the data to understand how humans are distributed around the planet, and thus be able to determine the best way to provide them with Internet access, via land, air or space. The goal is to create a “multi-pronged” Internet network to serve under-connected populations.
CNBC reports that Facebook’s head of strategic innovation partnerships and sourcing Janna Lewis, a former intellectual property attorney with experience in international aerospace law, reveals the technology is a blend of information from space satellites and government census numbers.
“Satellites are exciting for us,” she said. “Our data showed the best way to connect cities is an Internet in the sky.” She added that the company is “trying to connect people from the stratosphere and from space,” via “high-altitude drone aircraft and satellites, to supplement Earth-based networks.”
Facebook, which has also hired aerospace engineers, says the mandate is to “work with partners in the aerospace industry” to build a network “to serve the entire planet.” The tech titan isn’t alone in trying to “take advantage of a slew of data now available from the hundreds of satellites orbiting the earth.”
“All this satellite data is coming from space, so people are trying to figure out what the business opportunities are,” said Aerospace Corporation senior vice president for civil and commercial systems Edward Swallow, who noted that Google sold its satellite-imaging business, “because they figured out they could get the data without having its own satellites.”
The cost of launching a satellite into a low Earth orbit has dipped due to so much activity in the space, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit. Virgin Orbit executive Monica Jan estimates the cost to “get a payload into space” is as low as “tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram.” Prior to the current activity, a satellite launch “typically cost millions or even billions of dollars.”
Steve Butow, West Coast military lead for DIUX (the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental) says that, of the 576 U.S. satellites in orbit today, 286 of them “were launched for commercial reasons.” He adds that, with this level of investment, we’ll likely see a “space-based broadband data network,” which is part of what Facebook is hoping to create.