Facebook says its fiber-spinning robot will dramatically reduce costs

Facebook Connectivity thinks it has developed a cheaper and faster way to deploy fiber that doesn’t involve digging up streets. Instead, the company has created Bombyx, an aerial fiber-deploying robot that crawls along power lines and wraps fiber around those lines.

The company envisions Bombyx being used as a middle-mile fiber solution, meaning it can bring fiber capacity to a pole mount and from there a service provider would either have to use underground fiber or wireless for the last-mile connection.

As a refresher, Facebook Connectivity is the part of Facebook that is tasked with working on technologies and partnerships with the goal of bringing the internet to more people around the world. Back in 2014, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg first talked about the company’s vision for pervasive connectivity when he was the keynote speaker at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. That was also the year Facebook created the Connectivity Lab and started exploring different technologies to make the company’s vision of connectivity feasible —from drones to satellites and free space optics.

During a media briefing this week, Facebook Connectivity executives said that Bombyx is exiting its research and development phase and the company is now looking for potential partners, such as electric utility companies. Bombyx could be deployed on electrical infrastructure anywhere in the world where communities are looking for a low-cost way to deploy fiber, including in the U.S.

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Of course, some electric companies today are already deploying aerial fiber via their power lines. In fact, Sprout Fiber Internet, a division of Cullman Electric in Cullman County, Tennessee is currently using aerial fiber to connect its substations together with a fiber ring and in the process offering fiber broadband service to 12,000 potential customers that live along the path of that fiber ring. 

However, Facebook says that one of the big disadvantages faced by power companies that are deploying aerial fiber is that these companies typically have to interrupt the power service to homes and businesses during the process.

Bombyx doesn’t require that because it can wrap the power lines with fiber without human assistance.

But to get to this point with Bombyx, Facebook said it had to overcome many obstacles in its development. For example, power lines are very thin and can only support a limited amount of weight. Because of this, the company used Kevlar braiding to make the fiber strong but also small and flexible. Karthik Yogeeswaran, wireless systems engineer with Facebook, said that the fiber Facebook created is 10 times lighter than existing fiber cable and is three times smaller.

The company also reduced the weight of the fiber by cutting the fiber count from 96 to 24. Facebook said that a single fiber can serve up to 1,000 homes so 24 fibers would be able to serve the same number of homes and businesses that are passed by a typical power line.

Facebook also worked with a number of partners to develop a sturdy jacket for the fiber that can withstand high temperatures that are often found on power lines.

Yogeeswaran said that Facebook also had to develop a way for Bombyx to flip over as it moves down the power line and still maintain its balance as it clears any obstacle on the line that it may encounter.  “We have sensors that pick-up obstacles and detect the boundaries of the obstacles,” he said.