Google Beats Facebook to Punch, Buys Drone Maker

Back in high school we called this “pissing in someone’s corn flakes,” but if you prefer Napoleonic metaphors, Google has “stolen a march” on Facebook by buying Titan Aerospace, which makes high-altitude, solar-powered drones, apparently with the same basic goal in mind: providing wireless Internet access to areas of the planet that are still off the grid.

According to the Wall Street Journal, which reported the news yesterday, Titan will become part of Project Loon, Google’s initiative to provide Internet to the world via all manner of airborne gadgetry, including drones but also satellites and high-altitude balloons. The WSJ also reports that Titan’s technology could come in handy for another Google project to create super-efficient airborne wind turbines. Last but not least, the drones could be equipped with cameras to take high-res photos of the planet’s surface for Google Maps, allowing Google to update the database in real time. 

As reported previously, 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 per hour.

Meanwhile, Facebook is hardly out of the drone game: in late March the social titan acquired a British firm, Ascenta, which also makes high-altitude, solar-powered, long-endurance drones. The firm will be integrated into Facebook’s Connectivity Lab as part of its Internet.org project to bring Internet access to the masses.

Naturally there has been some concern over the idea of Google, or Facebook, or anyone, acquiring the ability to “spy” on us all from above. Indeed, the word “Skynet” leaps to mind (if they start incorporating traffic control functions, run!). However the simple fact is nation states, including our own benevolent U.S. government, have far more advanced capabilities to spy on us, should they so choose -- and they choose! While details are sketchy, the Pentagon’s next generation of spy satellite technology sounds pretty impressive, if that’s the right word.

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