Airborne WiFi, like wearable computing and 3D printing, looks to be the next step in technology that everyone is attempting to surmount. Google has its Project Loon, Facebook is said to have designs in that direction and other companies have no doubt also got their plans for flying WiFi points. DARPA is also getting into the act, with a project in the works to turn old drones into mobile WiFi hotspots in order to provide internet access to troops in the field in remote locations.
The stated aim of DARPA’s program is “…building and demonstrating a scalable, mobile millimeter-wave communications backhaul network mounted on small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and providing a 1 Gb/s capacity.” The first phase of the project has been completed and DARPA has reported several successes, including demonstrating a “…steerable, compact millimeter-wave antennas that rapidly acquire, track, and establish a communications link between moving platforms. ”
The equipment required to facilitate wireless access via UAV have been compressed into a pod that can be mounted on an RQ-7 Shadow drone. Phase 2 of testing has already begun and involves four Shadow pods, ground vehicles and a ground-based node. The third phase of the WiFi drone plan will center around field testing with multiple drones and multiple vehicles. Assuming the tests are successful, soldiers in battle will be able to update their Facebook profiles and (more likely) get internet-based intel while on the ground. Tech like this could also be repurposed for disaster-struck areas to enable WiFi in areas where infrastructure has been badly hit.