By Clay Dillow
FORTUNE -- Google isn't the only web giant buying its way into the robotics game, or the ubiquitous global Internet game, for that matter. According to TechCrunch, Facebook is in talks to buy Titan Aerospace, a maker of high-flying, solar powered drone aircraft capable of staying aloft for up to five years without ever having to land or refuel -- ideal platforms for beaming Internet to remote regions of the world where Facebook's "next billion" are currently waiting to be plugged into the web.
If the rumors are true -- Facebook declined to comment on what a representative termed "rumors and speculation" in an email to Fortune -- Facebook (FB) could soon leverage Titan's technology to challenge everyone from Google (GOOG) to mobile carriers in parts of the world where Internet is scarce (and where CEO Mark Zuckerberg sees Facebook's next big growth opportunity). A fleet of 11,000 Titan aircraft could loiter in the sky high above remote regions providing enough signal to connect populations below with the rest of the world. And if Facebook owns the drones, it stands to reason those people will be connecting through platforms like Facebook's eponymous social network or recent acquisition WhatsApp.
The concept is very similar to Google's Project Loon, which is currently testing a network of high-flying weather balloons acting as overhead Internet hubs for remote regions in the South Pacific. But Titan's technology could trump Google's in several aspects. Titan's aircraft are more like low-flying satellites than high-flying aircraft (in fact the company refers to them as "atmospheric satellites"), capable of carrying a whole lot of payload for long periods of time.
Unlike conventional aircraft, the solar-powered Solara 50 and Solara 60 don't have to regularly land to refuel -- onboard batteries store enough energy during the day to power the aircraft through the night (as well as enough to power 70 pounds and 250 pounds of payload, respectively). Unlike satellites and balloons, they can be rapidly repositioned to provide coverage where needed. If something goes wrong, they can land for repairs and relaunch rapidly -- something far more difficult for balloons and impossible for satellites. Flying in an atmospheric sweet spot roughly 10 miles above sea level known as the tropopause, the aircraft are generally untroubled by winds, weather, commercial air traffic, and most international aviation regulations (the FAA, for example, stops regulating air traffic at roughly 60,000 feet).
Moreover, if the acquisition proves real, Facebook could be getting Titan at just the right time. Thus far privately held Titan (the company has offices in Washington, D.C. and New York City, but runs its research and development out of Moriarty, N.M.) has supported itself through seed funding, and while it has demonstrated its technology in test flights, the Solara 50 and Solara 60 won't be ready for commercial service until later this year and next year, respectively. When Fortune spoke to Titan leadership in August at the world's biggest drone confab in Washington, D.C., senior engineers stressed that their focus is on producing a sub-$2 million aircraft that is simple to operate and maintain and that they were almost ready to put one in the sky, though they hadn't -- yet.
At a reported $60 million, the deal would cost just a fraction of what Facebook just shelled out for WhatsApp. But Titan could be an important accessory technology for WhatsApp and could help answer the much-debated question of why Facebook paid so much for a messaging app. If Facebook scooping up a drone manufacturer comes off as a strange way for a software company to move into hardware, consider:
If the deal happens, Facebook could create hundreds of millions or even billions of lifetime users whose first regular experience with the Internet is via Facebook's infrastructure and apps. And it could become an important collector and disseminator of data -- something like its competition in Mountain View -- in the offing.
Titan was not immediately available to comment for this story. Facebook declined to comment.
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