What is air? Air is the name given to the Earth's atmosphere. It is a mixture of different gases – mainly nitrogen and oxygen - and a variable amount of water vapour. It is necessary for all living things in many different ways. It absorbs UV-radiation, reduces temperature variations and gives power being part of the breathing, photosynthesis and other processes of various organisms. Its power can be felt as well in winds and waves - which I have lots of experience because of one of my favourite hobbies – wind surfing. It is in essential role in water circulation from seas to clouds, clouds to ground, rivers and lakes and back to the sea. We can extract part of the power from all these processes to help our lives.
Air - invisible as data
We cannot normally see air but we can see and feel its effects. It can be visible in big cities as smog and in less crowded environments as mist. This is possible because air can contain small particles which are highlighted by the water vapour gathering around them. Personally I prefer watching unpolluted scenery behind mystical white curtains in the morning. In IT, data takes the role of air. We cannot see it but it is present and affects all the processes that are running in our computers. Data can be polluted too giving perhaps as much harm to us as contaminated air.
Internet and air
Somebody has said that we should add one more layer into the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Originally the three lowest layers were love, safety and physical needs. At least for the Z-generation the need for WIFI seems to be even below these. That’s why you should have internet available everywhere on earth and because you sometimes travel by planes we have the need for wireless connections in the air too. Norwegian was the first airline to offer high-speed broadband on flights within Europe. Finnair and other companies are now making big investments to follow this path.
There are many other projects that aim in creating internet access to rural and remote areas. They are based on different gadgets in the air. Google has Project Loon which is built around high-altitude balloons placed in the stratosphere at an altitude of about 32 km. Balloons have been tested already in Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zeeland and Brazil. Some countries are afraid of that their efforts in light fibre cabling will show up as an unnecessary investment.
Facebook has similar ideas as well. Their Aquila is a high-flying, long-endurance drone using solar power to provide internet services for the developing world.
Besides these there are three other projects which are using more common ways of long distance communication: satellites, but this time in low altitude orbits. Using satellite communication today is mainly done by creating point-to-point connections for big operators who gather high number of their user communication data at the one end and then spread it at the other end. If an individual user wants to use these connections directly, he has to buy high priced special devices and pay a lot of the usage of these channels. If you are trying to reach the South Pole you don’t have many other choices and the price might become irrelevant. These new projects, however, are targeted to masses living in poor conditions.
SpaceX (Elon Musk, PayPal) is planning to launch its first two satellites during this year. These will be orbiting at 625 km altitude and will be followed by thousands of others to cover larger geographical areas. Concurrently OneWeb (Richard Branson, Virgin Group) constellation is planning to send 700 microsatellites to 1 200 km orbit to offer internet to every corner of the Earth. The third proposal is from Samsung and its solution needs to have about 4 600 satellites in the air.
Weather forecasts and air
We need air to deliver IT services around the Earth but at the same time we need IT to analyse and predict how air is behaving. The first step is to gather relevant data. Today this is a highly automatized process which produces constantly updated information from tens of thousands of sensors and meters. There are still some weather surveillance stations with real people sending balloons twice a day to gather data from up to 30 km attitudes.
We get so much information that it is not possible to handle it manually. There are several weather models that have been developed and refined during years of testing and verification. These are used to create a raw estimate of the behaviour of the weather for the next few days. Despite of the more precise information from current status in measurement stations, better weather models and computer power that was not considers possible ten years ago, we still need to have meteorologists to make good guesses to finalise the forecasts of the computers. And forecasts for over five days are still as good whether they are based on gigabytes of exact data and myriads of calculations or if they are based on the behaviour of the frogs by your garden pool.