Birdnet

I’ve been thinking about Birdnet for about 6 years now, but I doubt I’ll ever get to work on it at this point.

Birdnet would be an open-architecture drone-carried wireless internet framework.  Drones could be homemade or mass-produced. Users would put a “nest” in or near their home where a drone could “perch”. They would connect to this drone, which would connect to a network of nearby drones. Drones would act as retransmission points, sending all received traffic on to their nearest neighbour(s) until reaching the nearest Birdnet-connected hard connection point.

Today as I listened to the local news discuss a service outage on Fogo Island I wondered once again whether there was a place for the thing I spent so much time thinking about.  Loon isn’t thinking about these micro-outages.  I’m not sure what Titan or Ascenta are aiming for; probably just plain old internets delivered via a somewhat novel mechanism.

The obvious jumping off point for the project train of thought was Cory Doctorow’s book Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, which is still one of the more memorable books I’ve ever read.  One of the characters focuses on expanding wireless networks throughout a Canadian city (Toronto? – my memory is not a reflection of the book’s quality).  This seemed like something you could realistically do at the time, but at this point it’s kind of crazy the places it ISN’T happening.

(There should be wireless everywhere.)

(There isn’t).

I guess shortly after I read that book I was exposed to quadrotors for the first time.  The two seemed an obvious pairing to me – a cloud of small airborne drones each carrying a small power source and a wireless chip should be able to bring internet anywhere.

As I developed the idea further, it occurred to me that you would run into bandwidth limitations pretty quickly, mainly due to power constraints.  The answer to that seemed to come in the form of a perching drone.  The drone would fly so far, perch, recharge, and resume flight.  When it reached its position in the network it would then find a stable perch and use all of its generated power for wireless transmissions.

This seemed to give the system a very important capability – you could push more capable drones out quickly by delivering them in batches to hub points (later I thought of them as “nests”) , where the could assume a spot via a flocking-type algorithm, or else change places with a drone that had drone reached the end of its useful life. That drone could be refurbished and updated with new wireless hardware or retired as appropriate.  This same mechanism meant you could also make the network denser relatively cheaply to account for higher utilization or more difficult/inclement atmospheric conditions.

Mass production, I thought, should drive overall costs down quickly. The solution might never replace fiber, but it should at least solve the problem of deploying internet to areas that are otherwise difficult or impossible to reliably service.

Growing up in a small town in Newfoundland, this was a constant issue. We had no FM radio channels (at least until about 11PM each evening), and even the AM service was spotty and noisy.  I didn’t expect ubiquitous high-speed internet for my hometown anytime soon.  Kudos to those who made it happen.

I don’t think it’s crazy.  I think with a little money it could be made to happen; I even think there’s a possible business case there.  I just don’t think I am the guy to do it anymore.