Facebook Connectivity unveils robot that can speed fiber deployment

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Facebook Connectivity showed off new technologies that should help bring the next billion people online to a faster internet. The technology includes a robot called Bombyx that can quickly install fiber optic cables over telephone wires in a fraction of the time it normally takes.

It also featured Terragraph, a wireless technology that can provide fiber-like wireless networks on the “last mile” in areas harder to reach with cables. And Facebook also showed off a new segment of submarine cables called 2Africa Pearls, which has become the world’s longest submarine cable system, connecting the internet across Africa, Europe and Asia. That cable could triple the internet bandwidth reaching Africa, said Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer, at a press conference.

This is pretty amazing technology, and it’s coming in what could be described as Facebook’s worst week ever. Last week the Wall Street Journal wrote a number of stories about how the company failed to consider the interests of teenagers on Instagram over its own profit interests. Then on Sunday, ex-Facebook employee Frances Haugen, the whistleblower who provided the classified information, went public in 60 minutes when she blew up the company over its practices. And then Facebook had a day-long outage that disrupted social media around the world.

Speakers included other project leaders including Dan Rabinovitsj, Cynthia Perret, Karthik Yogeeswaran and Yael Maguire. The robot was the sexiest project. It accesses a phone line through polls. Then it slides along the wire and its rear part rotates, automatically wrapping the fiber optic cable around the telephone cord. Since the robot can race along the wire and even navigate past the masts, it can significantly cut the time it takes to install fiber optics, and it can also cut costs.

Facebook said it already connected more than 300 million people to faster internet service. As the internet becomes more ubiquitous, the technology to get people online has not kept pace. Even if data usage per person increases by 20-30% each year, almost half of the world will be left behind – either with insufficient access to the Internet or completely without a connection, according to the company. Although fiber has tremendous potential for improving connectivity, in 2019 more than 70% of the world’s population still live more than 10 kilometers from fiber.

“People are looking for even better ways to connect than they are today, and there is still a lot to do to improve that digital experience,” said Schroepfer. “A number of new virtual rooms – which many people already refer to as a metaverse – will help meet this challenge. It will enable the next generation of online social experiences that are more engaging and immersive than we could ever imagine. “

And being connected creates better jobs. In Nigeria, for example, improved broadband connectivity resulted in a 7.8% higher likelihood of employment for people in areas connected to fiber optic cables. This means that for every million people living in fiber optic areas, another 78,000 people were employed. Or think of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where improved connectivity resulted in a 19% increase in GDP per capita ($ 789 versus $ 663 at purchasing power parity).

Submarine cables

Above: Facebook uses solar power plants to power its underwater internet cables.

Image source: Facebook

Facebook Connectivity has accelerated access since 2013 and is now doing more. The company said submarine cables connect continents and are the backbone of the global internet. The company’s first transatlantic submarine cable system will connect Europe to the United States. This new cable offers 200 times more internet capacity than the transatlantic cables of the 2000s. This investment builds on other recent underwater expansions including 2Africa PEARLS, which will be the world’s longest underwater cable system connecting Africa, Europe and Asia. Facebook builds more than 150,000 kilometers of submarine cables.

Among other things, engineers are working on a buoy system that can supply the repeaters with power from the middle of the ocean. They are looking for more sustainable ways to do this using a combination of wave energy converters and solar panels. This unique solution will allow them to drive technological innovation as we go from 0.5 petabits per second to 5 petabits per second – that’s 10 times the capacity.

“This will have a major impact on underserved regions of the world, especially in Africa, where the internet bandwidth reaching the continent will be tripled,” said Rabinovitsj. “To tackle projects of this size and complexity, you need enormous innovative strength.”

Bombyx robot

Above: The Bombyx robot slides along a wire and wraps a fiber optic cable around it.

Image source: Facebook

To reduce the time and cost of introducing fiber optic internet into communities, the company developed a robot called Bombyx that moves along power lines and wraps them in fiber optic cables. Since the company first unveiled Bombyx, it’s gotten lighter, faster, and more agile, and Facebook believes it could have a radical impact on the economics of using fiber around the world.

With each fiber optic strand costing pennies per meter and installing the fiber between ten and a hundred dollars per meter, Facebook wondered if it could cut the cost of installing fiber optic cables.

“To answer that question, we first thought of medium-voltage lines, the familiar three wires you see on the top of a utility pole,” said Yogeeswaran, a wireless systems engineer at Facebook. “In most parts of the world, medium voltage lines run through almost every street. If we could find a way to add fiber to these power lines, we would have a solution that could be used around the world. “

The solution was Bombyx, which can be deployed from the air. Bombyx, Latin for silkworm, is Facebook’s attempt to cut the cost of deploying terrestrial fiber by combining innovations in robotics and fiber cable design to increase the amount of terrestrial fiber on land – without the cost of trenching Laying fiber optics underground.

“We had to rethink everything from the materials science behind the fiber optic cable itself to image processing and advanced stabilization techniques that enable the robot to work safely in harsh real-world conditions,” Rabinovitsj said. “This is especially useful in areas where laying fiber is impractical, be it in a big city or a remote village.”

Since working on Bombyx, Facebook has reduced the robot’s weight by 4.5 kilograms, reduced the time it takes Bombyx to cross a power line from 17 minutes to under 4 minutes, and improved the stabilization mechanism to ensure that the Robot stays upright on the power line, said Yogeeswaran.

And now the robot has switched from semi-autonomous to fully autonomous operation when driving over an obstacle. With the current semi-autonomous system, operators monitor and control the movements of the robot when crossing borders. On the way to full autonomy, technicians can load Bombyx onto the line and then allow the robot to draw a course past obstacles and navigate itself along the line.

The company’s work on Bombyx was inspired by helical fiber optic winding techniques introduced in the 1980s, but these methods cut off power to customers in the installation areas. But Facebook realized that it also needed this winding machine to overcome obstacles in its path without human assistance, to install fiber optics without cutting off homes and businesses.

Facebook used Kevlar braid to make the cable strong while keeping it small and flexible. Next, the size and weight challenge was addressed by reducing the number of fibers from 96 to 24. Thanks to newer technologies, a single fiber can supply up to 1,000 homes, so 24 fibers could supply all homes and businesses that each power line entry goes into. Eventually, it worked with material suppliers to develop a jacket for the fiber so it could withstand the high temperatures on power lines and the high voltage arcing damage.

Then they had to teach him to crawl along power lines and overcome obstacles (like maybe shoes tied to a power line).

Terragraph

And the company developed Terragraph, a wireless technology that delivers fiber-optic Internet over the air. This technology has already provided high-speed internet to more than 6,500 homes in Anchorage, Alaska. The mission has also started in Perth, Australia, one of the most remote capital cities in the world.

Terragraph uses transmitters on streetlights and rooftops to create a distributed network for reliable, high-speed connections in homes and businesses. Terragraph is faster to implement than trench fiber because it builds on existing fiber points of presence and wirelessly expands capacity through nodes attached to existing street lights such as lamp posts and traffic lights.

Terragraph nodes attach to lampposts and roofs in a multinode network, creating a resilient network that can redirect the signal if necessary so that capacity is not reduced to homes and businesses in the event of an obstacle such as the scaffolding of a building.

What began as an early stage technology in 2015 is now being brought to market through our partner ecosystem of hardware vendors and service providers around the world. Facebook is licensing Terragraph to hardware companies for free, and five partners have already announced that they will offer Terragraph-enabled hardware products. To date, these partners have supplied more than 30,000 Terragraph units to more than 100 service providers and system integrators around the world.

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