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Portuguese Startup Tests Large Wi-Fi Drone To Provide Cheaper Internet Access

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A Portuguese startup says it has successfully tested a prototype version of its solar-powered drones that aim to deliver Wi-Fi to remote countries in the world.

Quarkson's SkyOrbiter is similar to Facebook's Titan Aerospace project, which also promises to provide Wi-Fi to unconnected parts of the world via Mark Zuckerberg's Internet.org. It can also be likened to Google's Project Loon, which consists of balloons that make Internet service available to underserved areas and which is already being tested in places such as New Zealand, Australia and Chile. As the company explains the technology, Google partners with telecommunications companies to share cellular spectrum. Users can connect to the balloon network directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices where the signal is passed across the balloon network and back down to the global Internet on Earth.

The Portuguese startup is the latest initiative to take the Internet to far-off corners of the globe. Earlier this month, the company announced that it has successfully completed testing of a test version of one of its high-altitude drones, the 265-pound HA65. With a wing span of 213 feet, it can fly for six weeks with a range of up to 80 miles, in an undisclosed location.

The test version, however, is smaller, with a wing span of 16 feet. The SkyOrbiter tested on April 2 was equipped with a Wi-Fi transmitter that sends signals to a patch antenna on the ground. It was flown within line of sight up to an altitude of 328 feet and successfully transmitted Wi-Fi to the ground.

Eventually, Quarkson hopes to fly a fleet of low-altitude and high-altitude SkyOrbiter drones. The low-altitude drones, which will be powered by fossil fuels, are designed for government and commercial use. The biggest of these is the LA75, with a wingspan of 246 meters and a range of up to 93,000 miles or up to seven weeks. The high-altitude drones, like the Titan Aerospace Solara 50, will rely on solar power to stay at an altitude of up to 72,000 feet. The HA75, also with a wingspan of 246 meters, can deliver Wi-Fi up to a range of 3 million miles or up to five years.

The goal is not only to deliver Wi-Fi but also 2G, 3G, and LTE connections via the unlicensed spectrum or through a carrier's licensed spectrum to provide Internet access to the parts of the world that have little or no connection.

"In underdeveloped areas of the world, aircraft and technology like these can't save people who are dying from malaria or hunger," says Miguel Angelo, CEO and founder of Quarkson, in an interview with Product Design and Development magazine. "But in the long run, the Internet connectivity they bring will help these people, especially new generations, broaden their horizons to levels similar to that seen in developed countries."

Quarkson hopes to showcase its new technology to the public on April 30 at the Castelo Branco Maiden Flight SkyOrbiter Constellation Challenge in Portugal and on May 5 in Las Vegas, Nev.

Shown is a video of the SkyOrbiter during testing. 

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