Google May Use Drones to Keep Data Centers Healthy

Google’s filing emphasizes the importance of continuity of services among cloud providers.

Photo by Josh Sorenson via Unsplash

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Google wants to use drones to keep its data centers spick and span. 

The company filed a patent application for “autonomous aerial imaging and environmental sensing” of data centers. Google’s system relies on drones to monitor data centers to ensure that connection isn’t lost and conditions are optimal for operation. 

Monitoring the operations of a data center can be a complex and daunting task, “particularly in real-time or near-real time,” Google said. “The interior of a datacenter is complex, varied and dynamic because of the large number of components,” the company said. “Workload, consumption, and temperature fluctuate widely, e.g., from hour to hour.” 

Google’s drones are deployed on different “imaging and sensing mission(s)” to track a bunch of environmental factors within a data center, including humidity, temperature, noise, airflow and Wi-Fi spectrum at different heights. Google noted that using drones for this process in particular is beneficial since data centers often have “hard to reach areas or infrastructure that is deployed high up.”

If the drone’s server connection is interrupted, this system can be used with or without connectivity. If connection is lost, the drone will continue its monitoring using autonomous navigation by following visual tags positioned around the data center, essentially allowing it to “hopscotch from one visual tag to another and collect all necessary data,” Google said. 

Google noted this method is less resource-intensive and time-efficient, as the drone doesn’t need to land, backtrack to a docking station, or simply stop in its tracks and hover in place until connection is restored. 

Photo via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

While many data centers are already jam-packed with sensors to tell if something is off, data centers are incredibly complex beasts with thousands of discrete elements. If this patent is proof of anything, it’s that cloud companies are constantly looking for new and inventive ways to keep track of those elements, because keeping the wheels turning is vital for service continuity, said Trevor Morgan, VP of product at OpenDrives.

As more businesses turn to cloud providers for services, reliance on data centers continues to grow. Outages aren’t just an inconvenience, said Morgan. They can wipe out services for entire regions and bring hundreds of businesses to a grinding halt. 

Amazon Web Services is still the dominating force in the cloud sector. Google Cloud held 11% of the cloud services market share in the third quarter, according to CRN, behind Microsoft Azure at 23% and AWS at 32%. In order to compete with AWS, Morgan said, Google has to differentiate in its innovation, and can’t afford to put its clients at risk of outages. “That’s where I think ideas like this come into play,” said Morgan. “Continuity is a selling point, it’s what your customers demand. This (patent) gives you another failsafe.” 

But keeping your house in order can only get you so far. Redundancy is often built on the inside: If one server goes down, another one can pick up its slack. But external environmental factors, such as wildfires, hurricanes or other natural disasters, can leave an entire data center out of commission. And because of the limitations of hardware, there’s rarely another close by to take on its workload. 

“You see a forest fire and if it’s coming at your data center, it doesn’t matter how many redundant servers you’ve got in there,” he said. “That’s now a catastrophic situation.”