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Report: Facebook in talks to acquire its own fleet of drones

Tue, 03/04/2014 - 6:08pm
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If you like sinister Facebook conspiracy theories, a report today from the news blog TechCrunch provides you with a real doozy. Facebook is reportedly in serious talks to acquire a drone company called Titan Aerospace. The company makes solar-powered drones that can go five years without landing. According to TechCrunch"s sources, Facebook is ready to offer $60 million for the drone company.

Only $60 million? Facebook just paid $19 billion for WhatsApp, which is just an instant messaging service. I would think that a fleet of drones would be 30 times more expensive than a stupid instant messaging app – not the other way around. Apparently it is much cheaper to acquire tech companies that make useful products that have actual real-world value.

Drones do have actual real-world value, but not just the kind of evil laser-sniper surveillance you might be thinking about. Facebook wants Titan Aerospace because the social networking site sees humanitarian and commercial value in using the drones to provide Internet access to developing nations that have spotty or no Internet coverage at all.

"From our understanding, Facebook is interested in using these high-flying drones to blanket parts of the world without Internet access, beginning with Africa," write TechCrunch authors Sarah Perez and Josh Constine. "The company would start by building 11,000 of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), specifically the "Solara 60" model."

In other words, Facebook intends to use the drones to provide Internet access to developing nations so that more people can be on Facebook. It is just a convenient side effect that greatly enhanced Internet coverage and will give developing nations more access to education, communication and commerce.

You can see these drones in action in a Solara 60 YouTube video. Their advantage is that they can fly so high enough that they are not under FAA jurisdiction, but low enough that they are not yet in outer space. The drones can then orbit at that altitude over a certain country, providing a "high-altitude Internet server" for years without requiring any additional maintenance.

Facebook is not the first company with this idea. Google has been testing a similar idea called Project Loon, which aspires to provide Internet connectivity to remote parts of the world using hot air balloons.

Titan Aerospace has confirmed that they are in talks with Facebook about an acquisition, but they are not saying anything else. That makes sense. After all, drone companies probably have good reason to keep their operations as secret as possible.

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