Last August, we got our first look at Titan Aerospace and their high altitude, long duration, solar powered atmospheric satellite drones on the AUVSI show floor. Titan told us that they were gearing up to sell their first three full-scale commercial systems this year, which we were excited about. But yesterday, TechCrunch reported on a rumor from someone "with access to information" that Titan is in talks with Facebook, which may spend $60 million to purchase the company.
As with every single rumor that we post, we have to stress that this is just a rumor from (as far as we know) one single source "with access to information" (whatever that means). And although discussions have apparently been confirmed to be taking place, Facebook has told Fortune that it won't comment on "rumors and speculation." So you'd probably live a happier, healthier life if you paid absolutely no attention to this whatsoever. But we're gonna do some remorseless speculation anyway, because it's fun.
A 10-meter Solara prototype test flight in August of 2013
To figure out why the heck a company like Facebook might be interested in Titan Aerospace, here's a refresher on what these platforms can do. Titan's Solara is a robotic airplane with a 50-60 meter wingspan that can hoist 30 kilograms of payload up to 20,000 meters (well above both weather and regulation), and keep it there for up to five years, thanks to wings wallpapered (wingpapered?) with solar cells. At Solara's cruising altitude, it's got a field of view of something like 45,000 square kilometers, which means that if you (say) wanted to provide cellular internet to an area, one Solara drone could take the place of a hundred ground-based cellular base stations.
That sort of sounds like it might be appealing to a company like Facebook, for which more Internet availability translates into more users. Reportedly, Facebook would want to start with a fleet of 11,000 (not a typo) of the $2 million (ish) Solara drones, and send them all to the skies above Africa, where they'll lay down some not especially fast but quite pervasive ultra-low cost or free Internet. This would help bring about a billion people online (and onto Facebook, of course) who wouldn't otherwise have the option to accept friend requests and like pictures of cats.
But seriously, having Internet access is an important enough thing that Facebook isn't the only company keen on making it happen. Google is trying to accomplish the same thing with balloons, as are other companies with other technologies in varying states of readiness. There's a lot of money in "the next billion" (or five billion, more accurately) of potential Internet users who don't currently have reliable or affordable access, but there's also a huge amount of potential for social and economic change. It won't be as simple as just making Internet available, but that might be one of the hardest parts of an equation that Facebook is looking to crack. The company is a founding partner of Internet.org, which is on a mission to bring Internet to everyone, and Titan's atmospheric satellite drones might be the way that they do it.
The other reason that we like the idea of Facebook doing this is that it's one of those borderline crazy, moonshot type of ideas that Google is so well known for, and that more tech companies should try to make happen. These companies often have more money than they know what to do with, and projects like these are gradually taking the place of the driven innovation that, historically, we relied on government agencies for. We still have DARPA, certainly, but DARPA is not nearly as well funded as Facebook is, so if Facebook is willing to say, "okay, the world needs Internet, let's make 11,000 giant flying robots and see if we can give it to them," then that is progress.