[Jeff Geerling]’s latest project is for the birds — literally. Even though he has a brand new high-speed fiber optic internet connection, online backups of YouTube video projects still take hours. He decided to see if the conclusions from a 2009 in South Africa study still hold true today — that using carrier pigeons to send files can be faster than the internet. [Jeff] sets up an experiment to send 3 TB of data by homing pigeon a distance of one mile to establish a baseline. Next, [Jeff] sends the same 3 TB of data over the internet, and donning the cap of honorary pigeon, simultaneously embarks on a journey by air to his off-site backup service in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.

[Jeff] points out that you also have to consider the transfer time of your files onto and from the pigeon-suitable memory cards. He jumped through several hoops to minimize that, but it still consumed 2-1/2 hours total. Trying to keep the comparison fair, he also spent a couple days optimizing his internet connection to eek out the best possible speed.

Comparison of Total Transit Times vs Distance

The results are interesting. In the 3 TB to Canada experiment, jet-assisted [Jeff] needed about seven hours, beating the internet’s eleven hours by a comfortable margin. The chart above shows the transit time for each method vs distance. As you can see, the internet only wins when you consider distances of thousands of miles. Homing pigeons win at distances up to a few hundred miles.

While not by air, Amazon’s AWS Snowmobile service uses a huge truck to carry exabytes of data from your site to their servers. If you want to try this yourself, first read up on RFC 1149, A Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers from 1990, and its modern IPv6 version RFC 6214. We also wrote a piece about another unusual application of carrier pigeons during WWI.

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