Sometimes the news coming out of Silicon Valley is so weird you have to double check to make sure it’s not April 1. This week, TechCrunch reports that Facebook, the social
network, is in talks to buy Titan Aerospace, which makes drones. Social network buys aerospace firm. Of course! How could I not see it coming?
But it’s not quite as crazy as it
sounds… the operative word being “quite.” Because the plan is still pretty “out there.”
Facebook wants to build a fleet of solar-powered, high-altitude
drones, capable of staying aloft for years without having to land or be serviced, in order to bring wireless Internet to under-served regions around the world. The project somewhat resembles
Google’s experiments with wireless Internet weather balloons.
While we usually think of drones as being on the wee side, likes those adorable Predators, Titan’s drones are
no small affair: they have a wingspan of 165 feet, almost as long as a Boeing 777. These “solar atmospheric” satellites, which resemble a stripped-down glider, can hover or cruise slowly
at an altitude of 65,000 feet for up to five years, with a payload of up to 250 pounds. According to Titan, they can circumnavigate the world in three weeks, with an average speed of around 50 miles
TechCrunch reports that Facebook wants to build a fleet of 11,000 of these drones to bring Internet to the world, as part of its Internet.org initiative, aiming to
bring billions of people online in the coming decades. The logic isn’t hard to see: I’m sure one of the first things those billions of newbies will do is open a Facebook account and start
sharing pictures of cats.
Seriously, it’s a very laudable project, and one that makes me feel a bit more warm and fuzzy about Facebook than I have for some years. Expanding
Internet access in under-served regions has the potential to accelerate economic growth. One recent report from the World Bank estimated that a 10% increase in broadband connectivity could yield a
1.4% increase in economic growth across Africa. Mobile Internet access allows farmers and merchants to compare market prices to find the best destinations for their goods. It can also speed the
expansion of mobile banking, which gives people in rural areas more control over their finances.
And it’s a win-win for the NSA, which will have so many new people to spy on!