Facebook may look to drones to connect world to the Web


This Feb. 5, 2007 file photo shows Facebook.com founder Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. (Paul Sakuma/AP, File)

Facebook has committed itself to figuring out how to improve Internet connectivity around the world, a major engineering and infrastructure project. But how? If a recent report is correct, the answer may be "by using drones."

TechCrunch reported that Facebook is in talks to acquire Titan Aerospace, a drone production company. The firm is developing solar-powered atmospheric satellites, which, the report says, the social media company plans to use to blanket parts of the world with Internet connections.

Over two-thirds of the global population has no access to the Internet, a problem that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg set out to tackle last year by partnering with companies such as Nokia, Qualcomm and Samsung to improve existing network technologies around the world.

Using drones would be a new method, but an efficient one. Titan's Web site does name "voice and data" communications as one of the applications of its technology, which could be used to deploy reliable Internet connections across portions of the world that aren't currently connected -- without having to dig to lay down wires and cables.

The Titan drones are capable of flying, taking off and landing themselves, and they communicate with a ground station from atmospheric orbit -- at 65,000 feet, far above the highest-flying jets. Some, the company says, can stay up in the atmosphere for up to five years without having to refuel or even land. And, according to Titan's Web site, a single deployment of drones can provide voice and data communications "beyond 100 nautical miles" -- roughly 115 miles.

A Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment, saying that the firm does not "comment on rumor or speculation." Titan Aerospace could not immediately be reached for comment.

Titan itself isn't currently selling the drones -- the firm says the drones are in the "development phase," but that it is on track to start commercial operations in 2015. The firm, to this point, appears to have focused largely on developing ways to deploy this solution for military operations.

Connecting more of the world to the Internet, of course, has certain benefits for Facebook and other companies that see the potential not only for new development but also for new consumers. Emerging technology markets such as Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East are set to be major growth markets for tech firms of all stripes in the next five years, and expanding access to the Internet will only grow the base of folks who can contribute to the next global tech boom.

This could also be seen as Facebook's answer to Google's "Project Loon," which is working to solve the problem of connecting people in rural and undeveloped areas to the Internet by deploying a fleet of helium balloons that can beam WiFi signals back to the earth's surface. Announced last year as one of Google's "moonshot" projects, the balloons also carry solar panels, but rely on wind patterns to direct where their bubbles of connectivity -- 24-miles in radius -- float. Google is currently testing the technology in New Zealand, after keeping the project under wraps for two years.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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