Image: Titan Aerospace
Last month, Facebook announced its plan to bring internet access to developing nations by beaming it down from solar-powered drones in the sky. Today, surprise surprise, Google said it's gonna do that too. In fact, the search giant just snatched up the company that Facebook was rumored to be courting earlier this year to do it, the New Mexico firm Titan Aerospace.
Put another way, Google just rounded a corner in the race between the Silicon Valley giants race to deliver internet to the whole world—a worthwhile goal, even if the companies' motivations aren't entirely altruistic. But putting aside corporate rivalry for a minute, what these futuristic satellite-style drones are able to do is pretty amazing.
First of all, they're autonomous robots that are nearly the size of a commercial jet that can stay aloft for five years running on solar power. Think about that. Some 3,000 photovoltaic cells on the drones' 50-foot wingspan fuels the motor and charges up the batteries to power the drones at night.
Titan's flagship products, Solara 50 and Solara 60, will be the first commercially manufactured long-endurance solar drones, and will be commercially available next year, according to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the story.
Also worth noting, these drones fly really high up, at almost low-orbit heights, between 60,000 and 70,000 feet above the ground. They’re known as "atmospheric satellites" and can do most anything an orbital satellite can do, only cheaper—so it’s not hard to imagine why Google and Facebook are eager to get their hands on the technology.
It also means the solar drones will fly higher than the airspace regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, whose control over the skies only goes up to 60,000 feet, the Journal pointed out. Considering the FAA is now trying to extend its regulatory grip to literally any airborne object, the high altitude could afford the company a good deal more freedom than other UAVs.
Titan's drones can transmit internet to the ground below at speeds up to 1 gigabit per second, which means certain developing nations could wind up leap-frogging wealthy Western countries like the US, which has notoriously slow and overpriced connection speeds.
Granted, there are no details yet on how exactly Google plans to use the company, but has said that Titan will work closely with the rest of its growing aerial fleet. That includes Project Loon's internet-carrying balloons floating over New Zealand and Makani's giant helium airborne wind turbine, which will generate energy from 1,000 feet above Earth.
Google is also reportedly interested in acquiring Skybox Imaging, a startup based just down the road in Mountain View, that has launched a constellation of microsatellites in low orbit to capture high-res footage of Earth in real-time. Titan's atmospheric satellites could also photograph the planet from the edge of space, possibly integrating with Google Earth and Google Maps.
"We’re passionate believers in the potential for technology (and in particular, atmospheric satellites) to improve people’s lives," Titan Aerospace wrote in an announcement today. "It’s still early days for the technology we’re developing, and there are a lot of ways that we think we could help people, whether it’s providing internet connections in remote areas or helping monitor environmental damage like oil spills and deforestation."
It won't be alone in this quest. Facebook wound up buying a similar aerospace company, Ascenta, that also manufactures long-flying, solar-powered unmanned aircraft. And its Facebook Zero and Internet.org initiatives are also working to get remote parts of the world online (and on Facebook, naturally).
Today's news is just the latest chapter in the companies' not-so-subtle quest for digital dominance. Facebook is on your face, Google is in your eyeballs, and both have their sights set on monetizing the sky.