We all hate it when we find ourselves in an area with lousy wireless Internet, but for the military it can be a matter of life or death. These days our forces rely more than ever on a robust Internet connection on the battlefield, so DARPA is looking at ways to quickly bring a healthy Wi-Fi signal into hostile areas.
The latest plan is to use older retired drones as flying hotspots, as part of a program that converts older RQ-7 Shadow drones leftover from the war in Iraq. The RQ-7 is much smaller than the more familiar Predator drone at just 11 feet long and 185 pounds, but it's more than big enough for the task. To make a secure connection from the ground station without requiring a huge antenna, the drone will operate in the ultra-high millimeter waveband, with special low-noise amplifiers to boost the signal. The Shadow can stay aloft for up to nine hours at a time, at which point another Shadow can simply take its place.
The Wi-Fi drones are part of the Pentagon's Flying Hotspots program, which aims to deliver "a scalable, mobile millimeter-wave communications backhaul network mounted on small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and providing a 1 Gb/s capacity."
This all sounds a lot like Facebook's plan to blanket the planet with Wi-Fi using drones, although I expect you would find it a little more difficult to poach a Wi-Fi signal from the military version. As with many military projects, there are useful civilian applications too, and I could see flying Wi-Fi hotspots being used to provide Internet coverage at big outdoor events, and in large-scale emergencies. Personally, all I want is a few of these to circle around over Manhattan to fill in some of the dead spots in local cellphone coverage, and I'd be happy.