Monday, 10 March 2014

Reuters: Facebook on the Verge of Drone Acquisition

Reuters reported late last week that Facebook is currently in negotiations to acquire a prominent aerospace company for USD $60 million, with the goal of using the company's solar powered drones to provide Internet access in remote parts of the world.  According to various media reports, the company in question is Titan Aerospace, a New Mexico startup with fewer than 50 employees.

Titan's claim to fame is their solar powered unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) capable of flying nonstop for up to five years. Industry rumours suggest that Facebook wants the vehicles in order to put them to work for their Internet.org project.  The project is aimed at providing Internet access to billions of potential consumers in remote areas of Africa and Asia.

As things currently stand, these remote areas simply do not have the infrastructure to support traditional online access via fibre-optic and other means. Nor do they have the money to develop their own wireless communications via satellite networks.  Facebook could be the 'knight in shining armour' by furnishing the Tighten drones with the necessary equipment to provide ongoing wireless access.

The fact that the drones are solar powered solves the fuel issue for Facebook. Moreover, because they can stay aloft for so long, it would make vehicle rotation and maintenance a fairly easy task once the fleet was up and running.  The biggest challenge would be to make sure there are enough vehicles in play to cover breakdowns and weather-related problems.

Neither Facebook nor Titan Aerospace would comment one way or the other regarding the possible acquisition.  Should it go through however, it will mark the second significant acquisition by Facebook in less than a month. In late February, the company paid $19 billion for the WhatsApp mobile messaging app in a move that was widely criticised throughout the technology sector.

Going It Alone

According to the Reuters report, Facebook is the only company working on wireless Internet service in those remote areas.  Seeing as they are going it alone, TechCrunch says the company is hoping to build 11,000 drones to equip Internet.org however, this leads to an obvious question: do all of these potential new customers have - or want - the computers or mobile devices necessary to connect to a Facebook service?

Quite frankly, it's hard to see how this project will have any commercial benefit in the short term.  Perhaps there is plenty of long-term potential waiting on the horizon, but it will likely take a long time to get to that horizon.  The remote areas that we are talking about are considered remote for a reason.  Many of them lack even simple utilities such as the electricity that will be required to operate their computers.

It may be that Facebook believes in the potential of these highly advanced drones for future ISP and web hosting purposes.  Nevertheless, apparently no one else shares the same vision at this time.  All we can do is sit back and watch what happens. It will certainly be interesting…


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