Update: January 12, 2017
On January 11, 2017, 9to5Google reported that the Titan Project had been cut by Google during the formation of the Alphabet parent company in late 2015. According to a spokesperson for the “X” division within Alphabet:
The team from Titan was brought into X in early 2016. We ended our exploration of high-altitude UAVs for internet access shortly after. By comparison, at this stage the economics and technical feasibility of Project Loon present a much more promising way to connect rural and remote parts of the world. Many people from the Titan team are now using their expertise as part of other high flying projects at X, including Loon and Project Wing.
Update: February 2, 2016
In 2014, it ended up being Google rather than Facebook which acquired Titan Aerospace. Earlier this week, it was revealed that Google has named their program “Project Skybender” and they aim to deliver 5G internet access from these drones. Google’s intentions appear to be very similar to the rationale I outlined for Facebook.
Below is the original post, Facebook Drones Are Coming from March 5, 2014.
Facebook Drones Are Coming
According to a TechCrunch report:
TechCrunch is hearing that Facebook is buying Titan Aerospace, makers of near-orbital, solar-powered drones which can fly for five years without needing to land.
Why Does Facebook Want Drones?
Facebook is a key member of the Internet.org initiative. The goal of the organization is to bring internet connectivity to the nearly 2/3 of the world’s population currently without it. The TechCrunch report goes on to state that Facebook is interested in using Titan Aerospace’s technology to bring internet to African regions that do not have service.
Facebook has already crossed the 1 billion user mark. In order to bring in new users, Facebook may have to take a step back and get a whole new population onto the internet in the first place before they can attempt to get those people using their service.
Facebook also wants to keep pace with Google’s “Project Loon” which also has the goal of providing free internet to under-served regions. It seems that the big players in web services all recognize the importance of getting the entire world using the internet.
An interesting note is that, in the United States, the airspace is only regulated up to 60,00 feet. Elsewhere in the world, regulations vary; however Titan Aerospace’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can operate at 20Km (~65,000 ft) above sea level. That means that they should be able to operate above regulations once they complete their initial climb from the ground through regulated airspace.
This leads me to be hopeful that Facebook could operate these UAV’s over countries whether those governments like it or not. Access to information is the first thing that authoritarian rulers look to stop. During the recent crisis in Syria, the United States airdropped “communication kits” to help Syrians get around the local internet blackout. If preventing access to the internet became impossible, it would be easier for people to to communicate, organize, and stand up against injustice.
Flying at 20Km above sea level, the UAVs would be at a relatively low risk of being shot down by terrorists or small governments because it would take fairly sophisticated technology to reach them. They are also not particularly expensive, which is how Facebook is able to: “start by building 11,000 of these unmanned aerial vehicles”.
Facebook drones are just one of many possibilities for how we get to the point where the planet is blanketed in internet service. The consistent attempts being made by the influential internet giants makes it clear that the value of connecting everyone to the web is too great for it not to happen.