In spring 2014 Facebook announced their dramatic plans for a global Internet service, largely hinging on unmanned high-altitude, solar-powered aircraft. These would deliver Internet connection to hundreds of millions of underprivileged people in the developing world. It’s a dramatic concept which has clearly sparked off arguably the most famous Internet name of them all – Google.
This week it emerged that the search engine giant has purchased Titan Aerospace. The company builds unmanned aircraft which are solar powered – they’re so successful, it’s believed they could remain in the air for up to five years. Whilst Google are busy claiming this will provide the Internet to those who have no access to it, the deal simultaneously sets off a minor space race of sorts. It’s Facebook and Google in the fight for global Internet supremacy, and it’ll all be played out in the sky.
Google Takes To The Sky
Facebook announced their global communication plans via a selection of official blog posts, YouTube videos, and press releases. In comparison, Google’s take has been surprisingly furtive. No major announcements, press releases, or YouTube videos, merely a small announcement on the official Titan Aerospace website (you can, however, see a video of a computer-generated version in action here).
Despite this reticence, it was still explained in the announcement, “At Titan Aerospace, we’re passionate believers in the potential for technology (and in particular, atmospheric satellites) to improve people’s lives. 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’s believed the aircraft will fly at 65,000 ft. As they’re solar powered, they’ll be able to fly for around five years, and cover 3 million miles, unmanned and without the need to land. Whilst doing this, they will provide a steady Internet connection to those below. It’s expected two versions of the solar-powered drones (a prototype of which is pictured above), with plans for a test deployment as early as 2015, are in development.
This isn’t Google’s first foray into high-altitude Internet solutions. In 2013 they ran “Project Loon” involving hot air balloons to provide Internet connections to remote regions. Technology always moves quickly and now two major companies have entered the realms of solar-powered drone aircrafts.
The acquisition of Titan Aerospace is still relatively shrouded in mystery. Whilst Facebook were, ironically, in talks with the company earlier this year (eventually purchasing U.K.-based company Ascenda for $20 million), Google apparently outbid them in a deal believed to be worth $36 million. It signals a new era of drone-based technology from some of the world’s leading companies. However, the news has created as many problems as it aims to solve.
Battle Of The Drones
Facebook (whose drone prototype is pictured above) appear keen to take on many business possibilities right now, including virtual reality and $19 billion WhatsApp acquisitions. They are now in a race with Google to tap into billions of new users. The former ambitiously submitted ideas for satellites, laser beams, and solar-powered drones as a means to connect underprivileged nations. The drone concept would appear to be the most obvious, cost-effective solution, and Facebook have teamed up with NASA and others in order to see the plan come to fruition. Google’s plan is very much analogous, and hints at the competitiveness between the companies.
Whilst these two compete, Amazon has long been keen on the idea of drone-based deliveries. Despite opposition (and skepticism) from the government and public, they plan to have deliveries flown to a customer’s property via drones (the general idea being to leave the package on a lawn). A brief scan of online comments displays a mixed reaction from the public. Having these things flying about is a futuristic notion, but there are many fraught concerns to overcome.
Privacy concerns are ever increasing with the daily pertinence of the Internet. This is particularly noteworthy with Google and Facebook — they’ve been repeatedly accused of hoarding private information, and using this to promote their ideological leanings. As for Amazon’s delivery plans, skeptics believe it won’t be long before the drones begin colliding, or packages left innocuously on lawns are stolen by opportunistic thieves. Elsewhere, the world’s media has descended on the news, with some suggesting Google could use the technology as a means of spying on people. Some have dubbed the news “terrifying”, whilst “spy fears” is another key area of concern.
Whilst controversial, it seems only technological shortcomings will stop the drones from taking to the sky. It will be interesting to find out which, if any, company can manage to accomplish their goals. If Facebook and Google do succeed, the battle for greater user figures will extend to new countries rapidly. Meantime, Amazon’s plans could commence a furious delivery service war with increasing efficiency being an attainable goal. However, until 2015 comes around, everything is purely hypothetical, shrouded in mystery, controversial, and strikingly futuristic. It’ll be fascinating to see how this all works out.