Facebook in talks to acquire drone company

The $60 million planes would beam wireless Internet access to consumers in underdeveloped areas

A Facebook logo is pictured in the company's Data Center in Swedish Lapland.
Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook is in talks to buy drone-maker Titan Aerospace for $60 million, according to media reports. The high-flying drones would let Facebook Inc. beam Wi-Fi signals to the 5 billion consumers in underdeveloped parts of the world who don't have Internet access, according to the technology blog TechCrunch.

TechCrunch first reported the deal late on Monday, citing an anonymous source. The acquisition, if completed, would help advance Facebook's effort, which is aimed at connecting billions of people who do not currently have Internet access to online media. Most of them are in Africa and Asia.

Facebook declined to comment.

Titan Chief Executive Vern Raburn declined to comment on whether Facebook was buying the company or placing a large order for its planes.

"I can't comment one way or the other," Raburn said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

Drones have also attracted the attention of Amazon, the online retailer. CEO Jeff Bezos said in December that the company plans to deliver packages using small drones within four to five years.

Titan is developing a variety of solar-powered "atmospheric satellites," according to the company's website, with initial commercial operations slated for 2015. The drones fly at an altitude of 65,000 feet and can remain aloft for up to five years. They have a 165-foot wingspan, slightly shorter than that of a Boeing 777.

"What we have is an airplane that's solar-powered, so it doesn't have any fuel and it can climb up to a very high altitude and just stay there. And at that altitude it can do a multiplicity of missions ranging from communications, data, optical, weather sensing," Raburn said.

"Think of it as a Tesla Model S, with wings," he said, referring to the electric car. Raburn, who was previously the CEO of Symantec Corp and the president of Microsoft Corp's consumer products division, said that Titan has flown a scaled-down prototype of the plane.

Facebook is interested in having Titan build 11,000 of its Solara 60 model drones for its project, according to the TechCrunch report, which said: "There’s the altruistic side of, but when it comes to business, Facebook is playing the long game. It hopes that with time, everyone in the world will gain affordable access to the Internet and smartphones, which could help them join the knowledge economy and gain more buying power."

Providing wireless access, analysts say, could help Facebook capitalize on developing economies’ growing markets as they start to use Internet-connected mobile phones in coming years. The move would allow the company to attract a steady stream of new users in Asia and Africa, which would help it compensate for high market saturation rates in the U.S.

Facebook is not the only company working on bringing wireless Internet access to developing countries. Last year, Google Inc. announced Project Loon, which would use solar-powered air balloons to beam the Internet to remote regions.

Patrick Meier, co-founder of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s program of Crisis Mapping and Early Warning, told Al Jazeera in August that social media helps people to "better self-organize." Connecting through social platforms such as Facebook becomes a coping strategy for people in underdeveloped areas and "facilitates collective actions locally without having to depend on traditional humanitarian organizations," he said.

Facebook, which has 1.2 billion monthly users, has partnered with numerous wireless providers in recent years to offer free or discounted access to the social network. But some, such as Vodafone, have balked at waiving their wireless data rates for Facebook.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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