Facebook's grand scheme to bring Internet access to underserved parts of the world could soon get off the ground, literally, with drones flying high overhead.
The social network is in talks to buy Titan Aerospace, a company developing solar-powered, unmanned aircraft that can be used to build a data services network in the air, according to a report in TechCrunch, which cited an unnamed source. It put the value of the deal at US$60 million.
Titan is making big claims about its aircraft, which it calls "atmospheric satellites." The aircraft can cruise at 64 miles per hour and stay aloft for five years at an altitude of 65,000 feet, without having to land or refuel. As well as providing voice and data services, the aircraft can take images of the Earth and carry atmospheric-based sensor systems, according to the company.
Titan, which was founded in 2012, expects to make the drones commercially available next year, its website says.
Facebook is thought to be interested in employing a fleet of Titan's aircraft to provide Internet access to people around the world, starting in Africa. A Facebook spokesman declined to comment, and Titan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Using Titan's aircraft to provide some form of blanket Internet access would make sense, particularly in Africa, said Michael Toscano, president and CEO at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group. From a technology standpoint, "it's feasible," he said.
Titan's work in the area is not unique. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been working on similar technology for years. In 2010, Boeing won a US$89 million DARPA contract to develop the agency's SolarEagle unmanned aircraft, which would be capable of flying at 60,000 feet for five years or more. That aircraft was scheduled to make its first demonstration flight this year.
If Titan's aircraft could provide Internet access to people via mobile phones, that could go a long way in Africa, where cellphone adoption is on the rise and wireline infrastructure is sparse.
A bigger question is whether such a network of drones can be operated safely, and whether Facebook could secure the network from hackers, Toscano said.
The effort would be part of Facebook's Internet.org project to provide Internet service in developing countries. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has talked about how the company might partner with ISPs (Internet service providers) and deliver services for that project, but it hasn't said much about hardware infrastructure to support it.