Facebook built a new fiber-spinning robot to make internet service cheaper

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Facebook built a new fiber-spinning robot

The robot’s code name is Bombyx, which is Latin for silkworm, and pilot tests with the machine begin next year.

The robot rests delicately atop a power line, balanced high above the ground, almost as if it’s floating. Like a short, stocky tightrope walker, it gradually makes its way forward, leaving a string of cable in its wake. When it comes to a pole, it gracefully elevates its body to pass the roadblock and keep chugging along.  

This isn’t a circus robot. Facebook developed the machine to install fiber cables on medium-voltage power lines around the globe. The aim is to make it cheaper for internet service providers to build out their networks using super-fast and reliable fiber connections. Installing fiber is a pricey endeavor, limiting where it can be deployed. If the cost of installation goes down, says Facebook, so too does the cost of service for the end user. 

The social network and Mark Zuckerberg, its chief executive and founder, have long wanted to expand access to the internet. The fiber-installation robot — code-named Bombyx, which is Latin for silkworm — and a slimmer fiber-optic cable that’s housed inside the machine’s body are part of that push. The robot crawls along power lines and weaves its streamlined fiber cables around the lines already in place. It “dramatically lowers” the cost of fiber deployment by using existing electrical infrastructure, Facebook says. 

The social networking giant plans to nonexclusively license the technology and will launch a pilot program with partners next year. It won’t be building the robot  — which doesn’t have a set retail price — but will count on partners to manufacture and sell it. 

“Half the world’s population is not connected,” said Karthik Yogeeswaran, a wireless systems engineer in Facebook’s connectivity group and the brains behind the new robot. About 80% of those people live under existing 3G or better networks but still aren’t online because they can’t afford it, he said in an interview with CNET.

“Fiber has orders of magnitude more bandwidth than basically any other technology,” Yogeeswaran said. “We want to allow abundance so that more people can get more data.” 

While carriers are busy rolling out super-speedy 5G wireless service, pockets of the world still have slow internet, and 3.5 billion people have no access at all. The novel coronavirus pandemic has made the need for high-speed, broadband internet even more obvious. In some places, hospitals, schools and other critical organizations don’t have fast-enough internet to function. As people work from home, they require steady connections to get their tasks done, and kids need internet access to complete their digital coursework. Without connectivity, none of that is possible, disadvantaging people who live in places without reliable, fast internet access. Facebook wants to help, but it’ll be hard-pressed to succeed where many others have failed.

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