Facebook eyes drone maker to replace satellites to get web to poor countries

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2014, 9:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2014, 9:04pm

Facebook is reportedly interested in acquiring a company that makes drones capable of flying at high altitudes for up to five years at a time, to replace satellites.

Facebook is reportedly in discussions to acquire the company Titan Aerospace, a manufacturer of drones, for about US$60 million.

Titan Aerospace specialises in solar-powered, high-flying drones capable of staying airborne for long periods. The drones, dubbed "atmospheric satellites", are a cost-effective alternative to orbital satellites.

The talks, confirmed by technology website TechCrunch, indicate that Facebook is likely interested in the drones that fly as high as 20 kilometres as part of its initiative.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg took to the stage at Barcelona's Mobile World Congress last month to elaborate on the coalition's plans to connect the next five billion people to the internet in developing nations. The drones could be used to blanket large areas of Africa and other countries with internet access.

A source told TechCrunch that Titan Aerospace would be fully committed to the project post acquisition and that it would start building 11,000 drones for the effort.

Titan Aerospace, founded in 2012, has research and development facilities in New Mexico. It aims to create a new type of drone called an "atmostat" that can fulfil the role of a near-earth satellite at a fraction of the cost and without the need to be launched into orbit.

Zuckerberg has said that Facebook would have long-term involvement with the project. He also said that Facebook was willing to spend significant amounts of money without a likely return on investment in the near future.

"It's easy to take for granted that most people have access to the internet, but only one third of the world, 2.7 billion people, currently have access to the internet," said Zuckerberg in his Mobile World Congress keynote speech. "We're not on a path to connect everyone right now, unless something dramatic changes."

Mobile internet data subscribers number 1.2 billion in developing nations, far outstripping the 357 million fixed broadband connections in those same countries. That means mobile data outnumbers fixed broadband by more than three times in the developing world.

The Titan Aerospace drones could provide an ideal platform for expanding the footprint of mobile broadband, and help Facebook both connect more people and expand its user base in developing markets like Africa.

Titan Aerospace did not respond to a request for confirmation.