Facebook looks to buy solar-powered drone company to deliver worldwide internet
Titan Aerospace's Solara, a solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle designed to cruise at an altitude of 20 km (12.42 miles) for five years at a time, certainly got our attention back in August, and it appears to have not gone unnoticed by some of tech's bigger players either. Facebook is reportedly in talks to acquire the company with a view to using the drones as a means of providing internet access to the world's under-served regions.
According to Techcrunch, Facebook is currently in talks with Titan Aerospace regarding an acquisition that would come at a cost of US$60 million to the internet giant. If it does eventuate, Facebook would then set about constructing 11,000 of Titan's aerial drones, more specifically its Solara 60 model.
With a wingspan that measures 60 ft (197 feet) across and has a payload capacity of up to 100 kg (250 lb), these high-altitude unmanned aircraft are designed to function as atmospheric satellites. Around 3,000 solar cells fitted to the upper wing and tail surfaces of the vehicle see it generate up to seven kilowatts of power during the daytime, with lithium-ion batteries storing energy to keep it running through the night, a cycle that sustains its altitude for five years without it needing to land.
With a range of 4.5 million kms (2.8 million miles) and a cruising speed of 104 km/h (65 mph), the Solara's functions could include anything from crop monitoring to surveillance, or in this scenario, delivering internet access to remote parts of the planet.
Techcrunch reports however, that if the acquisition does go ahead, Titan Aerospace's vehicles would be produced exclusively for the purposes of the Internet.org project project. This initiative is backed by a consortium of tech giants such as Ericsson, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung among others, with the central focus being to bring internet access to the two thirds of the population that is currently without.
Speaking at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last Monday, Facebook CEO Mark Zukerberg said, "In the US we have 911 to get basic services. Similarly, we want to create a basic dial tone for the Internet. Basic messaging, basic Web information, basic social networking.”
Sources: Techcrunch, Internet.org, Titan Aerospace
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Even if the thing could theoretically stay in the air on solar power alone adding equipment for it to work as a wireless repeater is a whole other level of difficulty.
Only some radio frequencies are suited over these distances and they all come with their own list of problems. They would need to uplink to these through either satellite or several distributed ground stations.
By the time they purchase the required frequencies and ground stations to do it the only advantage bouncing off an aircraft would have over just letting the ground stations communicate directly with the users is higher frequency more line of sight radio spectrum could be used.
This spectrum can be cheaper to license but reception in doors may not be very good.
Aside from that all the same rules of building a wireless network still apply, the larger the area you attempt to cover at once the smaller the bandwidth you will have available per user.
The Internet is moving to (has moved to?) video. Look how expensive it has been for Verizon, ATT etc. to attempt to build wireless networks that support video.
What they will end up with is all the traditional costs of building out a network without much potential to monetize it.
I think it's more likely they are buying the technology just to own it and/or because they see use in knowing exactly where you are.
On the winds aloft: The winds up high can be very strong but they are typically very consistent (not gusty but smooth). In addition you can manage them by changing your altitude. You can also use them to reposition, again by changing altitude.
If they can sell the idea for that much, more power to them. Obviously the facebooks and googles of the world have more money then sense when it comes to UAS.