Close on the heels of Amazon releasing the news during the holiday season, of its plans to deliver products with their futuristic drones, the drone / unmanned craft space has garnered a lot of attention the world over. It turns out that Google, which has been on a constant acquisition spree in its quest to be relevant has acquired Titan Aerospace for an undisclosed sum. Facebook too was in talks to acquire Titan in early March, before they went ahead and purchased UK’s Ascenta, which also is working on solar powered unmanned crafts.
How is the team going to be integrated into Google?
Titan Aerospace is a startup in the state of New Mexico in the US, with about 20 employees. The CEO Vern Raburn is a technology veteran who headed Symantec and Microsoft’s consumer-products division earlier.
This team of 20 will continue to remain in New Mexico and be a part of Google’s Project Loon. Project Loon is the ambitious initiative where large, high-altitude balloons will be used to provide Internet signals to even the most remote corners of the world. The balloons were tested in New Zealand starting in 2013.
Of course, given the inherent nature of the balloons being above specific parts of the world, there is a natural synergy with Google’s other products such as Maps which require high-resolution images of the earth. The balloons might also leverage atmospheric sensors to determine various weather monitoring parameters.
What exactly does Titan build?
Titan is developing two dragonfly shaped drones which make use of their wing-mounted solar panels to remain airborne even after dark. The Solara 50 model, which is the smaller one, has a wingspan of 164 feet and a claimed mission range of 4 million kilometers. Titan also claimed in its earlier release that it can deliver Internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second using communication equipment, although it mentioned that commercial operations might only be viable in 2015.
The drones are claimed to be able to climb up to 20 kilometers above sea level and remain aloft for five years at a stretch without having to land. The drones are rumoured to weigh about 160 kilograms and carry payloads of up to 32 kilograms. Their maximum flying speed is supposed to be about 100 kilometers per hour.
In essence, these drones are able to perform many functions that a satellite can perform, at a fraction of the cost.
Is altruism driving these ‘drone’ initiatives by the tech majors?
Not at all. It’s a race to collect user data of the 7 billion plus population. Of course, the first step to getting invaluable user data is to enable these billions to go online.
Facebook has acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion in a bid to reach those users who might be more active only on their mobile phones, especially then younger generation. It has also been working on the “internet.org” initiative which focuses on enabling the next billion’s transition online. Facebook has created “Facebook for every phone” and “Facebook Zero” to enable access to Facebook from very basic phones in the developing world.
Amazon’s drone research was enabled by its purchase of Kiva Systems for $775 million in 2012. This purchase was with a clear focus on using drones in their distribution centers.
While this acquisition of Google is focused on providing Internet access, it has also been experimenting with its own drones, coming from Project X, the super-secret research facility that works on futuristic technologies. These drones were meant to be part of Google Shopping Express, a same-day delivery service available only in the San Francisco area.
What new innovations can we expect in the coming months to bring the next billion users online? Any thoughts?