TechCrunch reported today that Facebook is buying Titan Aerospace, makers of near-orbital, solar-powered drones that can fly for five years without needing to land. According to TechCrunch sources, the price of the acquisition is $60 million.
Facebook is a founding member of Internet.org, an initiative to provide Internet access to the entire world — two-thirds of which are still without Internet access — and the Titan acquisition would further that goal. The company is interested in blanketing Africa with the high-flying drones.
Once the deal is inked, Facebook would start building 11,000 unmanned “atmospheric satellites,” which are more versatile and less costly than orbital satellites. The “Solara 60″ model drones assist in disaster recovery, Earth imaging, weather monitoring and communications — Facebook’s main interest.
Last summer, Fortune pointed out that these satellites would be positioned in unregulated airspace, above the 60,000 feet stateside airspace that is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration’s U.S. Class A. The Titan acquisition would follow Facebook’s recent buyout of WhatsApp for $19 billion; both serve the company’s overall objectives to provide Internet access to developing countries.
The Titan buyout would also further Facebook’s initiatives to compete with Google’s R&D program called “Project Loon.” A source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that following the acquisition, all of Titan Aerospace’s production would be for the Internet.org project only.
According to TechCrunch:
If Facebook could project weak but free Internet to developing nations via Titan Aerospace drones, it could then make a basic version of WhatsApp available to those users. They may not be able to send or view photos, but they likely could send messages and view status updates, even if they only had a weak, slow connection.
Facebook’s acquisition of Onavo could lend a hand, too. We hear the team is hard at work on data compression technologies that would allow the same functions to require less transmitted data to complete. Onavo-optimized WhatsApp or Facebook apps could run on a weaker Internet signal, such as from drones, because they don’t need to send or receive as much data.
Internet.org’s altruistic intention to bring Internet access to people in developing countries who cannot afford it is admirable, but Facebook is no doubt interested in long-term profitability. Mark Zuckerberg published a mission statement that accompanied the launch of Internet.org in Aug. 2013 addressing the short-term financial hurdles.
“The unfair economic reality is that those already on Facebook have way more money than the rest of the world combined, so it may not actually be proﬁtable for us to serve the next few billion people for a very long time, if ever. But we believe everyone deserves to be connected.”