Technology companies are expanding beyond the Net and taking to the skies -- literally, with solar-powered drones that will beam broadband Internet access to the developing world, which houses growing numbers of newly minted Web users these companies want desperately to get their hands on.
Facebook recently purchased Ascenta, a UK-based startup that makes solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- or simply called drones -- for $20 million. Now, Google has entered the fray, purchasing drone maker Titan Aerospace for an undisclosed sum, according to a posting on Titan's now barebones Web site: "We're thrilled to announce that Titan Aerospace is joining Google."
In fact, Google scooped up the roughly 20-person startup, based in New Mexico and headed up by former Symantec CEO Vern Raburn, after it was widely reported that Facebook was interested in buying it.
Raburn will stay in charge of Titan Aerospace, Google told The Wall Street Journal, which first reported on the acquisition. His team will work closely with Google's Project Loon, the outlandish initiative -- born out of Google's in-house "moon shot" facility Google X that brought us Glass and the self-driving car -- to deliver Internet via air balloon. The drone company says it expects "initial commercial operations" to start in 2015.
Titan Aerospace, similar to Facebook-owned competitor Ascenta, is developing two insect-like drones -- the smaller of the two with a wingspan a tad larger than a Boeing 767 -- with wing-mounted solar panels that will power the aircraft's batteries to keep it afloat at night. The aircraft, which will fly as high as 12 miles in the sky, are expected to have a long-term aerial lifespan of five years.
The drones' primary function will be to help send Internet to places without a current connection at speeds as high as 1 gigabit per second, which -- matching the speeds of fiber-delivered Internet -- outranks many developed countries. The US averages only 7.2 megabits per second as of 2014, according to the most recent Akamai "State of the Internet" report.
Titan Aerospace also will be outfitting its drones with imaging technology that could bolster the efforts of other Google initiatives like Maps. This includes high-resolution imaging of the Earth, alongside atmospheric sensors and other satellite-provided cellular functions like data and voice call connection.
"It's still early days for the technology we're developing," in particular "atmospheric satellites," Titan said on its Web site. "There are a lot of ways that we think we could help people, whether it's providing Internet connections in remote areas or helping monitor environmental damage like oil spills and deforestation."
Beyond the seemingly humanitarian-geared goals of creating a satellite network of drones lies the next big technology arms race: turning the citizens of developing countries all over the world into not only active Web users, but consumers of products from the very same companies bringing them online. Google has Android and its slew of low-cost handsets that run on it to help in that effort, while Facebook has been working to make its social network function in areas of limited data connectivity by creating a text-only version.
For Facebook, the plan is to ultimately create more users of its social network. For Google, it's a more visible cycle of creating new users of its products and services and search engine, which drives advertising revenue that gets funneled back into projects like Loon that facilitate greater access to the Internet that, in turn, creates new users in the Google ecosystem.
From here on out, the battle between tech giants is no longer just over your smartphone and its OS, your search engine of choice, or the destination of your online social life's most valuable, ad-targeted assets. The fight has gone to space, and it's not likely to remain so uncrowded as more and more large corporations start snatching up companies like Titan Aerospace and Ascenta in the future.
Update, 1:20 p.m. PT:Added confirmation from Titan.