Titan's unmanned solar tropopause vehicle (Titan Aerospace)

Google Engages Facebook With Nonstop Solar Drones

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Originally published on Planetsave.

Unmanned solar vehicle (Titan)

Drones are no longer known as mere weapons of war. At least, that’s how Google, Facebook, and other online giants like Amazon appear to be thinking. Google has just acquired Titan Aerospace, a promising solar-powered drone maker, as part of its plans to globalize wireless internet.

Titan’s website provides news that the company is working the Solara 50 and 60 nonstop “atmospheric satellites,” unmanned ultralight solar jets designed to fly nonstop (well over 250 million miles, or 400M km), for at least 5 years at a time. Wing-mounted solar panels and onboard battery storage for night flying propel the low-wind tropopause vehicles. They fly up to 65,000 feet. Size-wise, the jets are big as Boeings, with 165-foot wingspans. The small (20-employee) company based in New Mexico has pinpointed initial commercial operations for 2015.

Ian Clover of PV Magazine details the collaboration: “Google’s technical experts will work with Titan Aerospace to advance the material design for the drones’ wings, while also developing advanced algorithms to help the aircraft better traverse wind patterns and flight routes.”

Google bought Titan for an undisclosed sum, reportedly at least three times what Facebook paid for British drone-maker Ascenta last month. Clay Dillow of CNN Money characterizes firms like Titan and Ascenta as “small, privately held companies sitting on various competing technologies that are waiting to see how customers—or perhaps future corporate overlords—will put them to work.”

Facebook was also in talks with Titan before making public its own recent decision to buy Ascenta and extend Internet access via solar-powered vehicles. A source close to Facebook told Clover that the idea had been floating around for at least six months.

Some analysts view the development as a natural outgrowth of Google X work on a high-altitude network of sophisticated balloons carrying radio transmitters (Project Loon) to extend internet service over the southern hemisphere. Solar-powered drones offer advantage over balloons because they can handle adverse weather conditions better. Both are cheaper and have greater range than drones or satellites powered by fossil fuels or batteries.

Google confirmed its Titan buy with this remark:

“It is still early days, but atmospheric satellites could help bring internet access to millions of people [in less developed countries], and help solve other problems, including disaster relief and environmental damage like deforestation.”

Facebook has made similar statements.

Noteworthy humanitarian goals, but what are the tech giants really going for? The drones could collect real-time geospatial data and aerial imagery to be used in online maps and services. They could be used in disaster recovery and for oceanographic and geologic research. They could also monitor weather and traffic data from a long way up. Presumably, the technology bundles developed could improve functioning of other robotic devices like self-driven cars and high-altitude wind turbines.

The drone networks also have to potential to displace current mobile carriers. Many of the military uses are obvious. And naturally, the companies will be able to sell more digital advertising if more people are able to go online.

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18 thoughts on “Google Engages Facebook With Nonstop Solar Drones

  • Where is the market for these? Remote Kivu province in the Eastern Congo – probably the nastiest place on Earth, with recent genocidal warfare and still a high level of violence from numerous armed militias – has three mobile phone suppliers with dense networks of terrestrial base stations. I believe they currently link these up by microwaves, but will no doubt go over to fibre-optic cables when demand gets high enough. It would be a miracle if solar drones can beat such established networks on cost. The number of people who live in really low-density environments like northern Siberia, the Sahara, or the Australian outback which are almost impossible to wire terrestrially is very small.

    • (I’m way out of my area of knowledge here.)

      “Quantenna Communications has announced that it has plans for releasing a chipset that will be capable of delivering 10Gbps WiFi to/from routers, bridges and computers by sometime next year. The announcement comes as competition in the WiFi chip-set market has been heating up due to ever increasing demand. Current delivery speeds utilizing the standard 5GHz frequency bandwidth can handle just 1.3Gbps.”


      Might this mean that we’re getting to the point of wifi using existing cell phone towers/systems?

      • Doubtful – the issue with Wifi is range, not bandwidth. Even currently it’s very rare to have a situation where you can saturate even the modest 100 Mbps speeds of today’s routers. (Unless you’re doing local file transfers that is – but those are rare themselves)

        • I’m 30 miles away from my wifi provider.

          • Are you using a high gain directional antenna? Or any antenna external to your computer/handheld device?

            The Max range of typical wifi devices is on the order of 660 ft. (That’s the average range of the best devices on the market). Granted you can get higher range if you pump more power into the antenna, or make it directional, but both of those require external antenna. Also, the fact that you live in a remote area (IIRC) will limit interference and give you better range, but we’re still talking well under a quarter-mile.

            What am I missing that allows you to go 30 miles?

          • External directional antenna. ;o)

            And line of sight from my mountain to the ISP’s mountain.

            I probably shouldn’t have used “wifi” in my question.

            “Might this mean that we’re getting to the point of wifi using existing cell phone towers/systems?”

            Let me try it this way. If we could pack a lot more transmission per second/whatever into the stream might we be able to use cell phone tower systems for internet?

          • Use cell phone towers for internet? Absolutely we could! Wifi isn’t the best technology for that, but yes we can have wireless internet fairly easily, but we would need to open up more bandwidth. (As things transition from analog to digital, we are already seeing more space open up – reallocate some and it wouldn’t be much of a problem).

            The problem is total bandwidth and scaling. In more densely populated areas, with the increasing data requirements per person on the rise, our data requirements are outrunning technological progress in that area. Because of the supply/demand curve, this makes wireless internet impractically expensive for most internet users (for people like my parents who use a few GB a month, this wouldn’t be a problem, for more normal users like my brother or I, it’s highly impractical)

            That does change when you get into more remote areas, however. My cousins use far more data/month than I, but they live in a relatively sparsely populated area (closest town is 15 miles and numbers 200 people). Not remote by any stretch, but for them, wireless internet may soon make very real sense. For more remote people, or people with lower data requirements, it may be practical now…

            Is that what your question was getting at?

          • Not really. I know that we could do internet by cell phone, know people who do/did. But that is expensive.

            However, if we could pack 10x more information into the stream would not that cut the cost by 10x (or something close)?

            I saw this – “”Quantenna Communications has announced that it has plans for releasing a chipset that will be capable of delivering 10Gbps WiFi to/from routers, bridges and computers by sometime next year.”

            And I started spinning off on going wireless and getting away from the copper/glass connections.

            (Weird. I posted this 4 hours ago and it didn’t go through. But showed in light gray on my page.)

          • Internet by cell phone, as you termed it, is artificially expensive. Even at the highest estimates (that I’ve come across anyway – talking to wireless experts) should cost 10c/GB or less. Now, that takes for granted the connection cost, but many people already have that so you wouldn’t need an additional connection. (This also ignores supply & demand – but everything over 10c/GB is profit.) This means in low demand markets, the cost should be very reasonable for typical user (<25 GB/month). Even if you do something outrageous and say that it costs $2/GB, more than half of all Americans will come out under $50/month.

            In rural areas there's no reason the price needs to be pushed sky-high like it currently is. This is simply their cash cow. Even in the highest demand markets, the cost of data after supply/demand curves come into play results in $5.50-6.67/GB. Given that many remote connections can be quite expensive, this makes sense quite quickly.

            The reason Wifi is "cheaper" is because it utilizes public bandwidths that the company doesn't have to buy at auction. They are leveraging a weaker technology for the current application in order to take advantage of "free" resources.

            And wifi is very wasteful of bandwidth. Currently the way they are making these faster isn't by packing more information into less data transfer, but by using more channels simultaneously, aka using a larger portion of the bandwidth spectrum. (well, to be honest they are, by lowering the guard interval, but that has diminishing returns as you start having to resend data that was corrupted and there is a physical limit to how short you can make that interval)

          • Thanks.

            Just some additional data. I’m paying $59/mo for 10 GB combined up/down. $5.90/GB. If, no when, I overrun I get 5 GB for $10 or $2/GB.

            (Avoid Chromebooks. They run your use up very rapidly if you do any photography.)

            Cable is never going to arrive here and I spent a decade with a satellite ISP so I’m OK with what I’m paying. (Obviously less would be better.)

          • So that sounds like $2/GB with a $40 connection fee to me. The $2/GB is steep, but reasonable compared to what a lot of others charge (though they’re making quite the pretty penny on that deal). The $40/month connection fee is steep no matter how you put it. (Just my humble opinion).

            Sadly there isn’t a whole lot of competition in the communications market these days. No matter which branch, it seems like they’ve created quite the unspoken oligarchy…

            (Man, I wish they’d use the Sherman Trust Buster more…)

            And glad I could provide more info. Hope it was helpful!

          • Cheaper and better than Hughes satellite. Given that I’m 3.5 miles from the grid and 15(?) miles from cable I’m happy to get a relatively fast connection for the money.

            I’d hate to think about how much it would have cost to get a wire here.

          • Yeah, it may very well be the cheapest solution for you, however, the company is still making a huge profit. Nothing wrong with that, but I think they’re making artificially high profits by preventing others from entering the market and having unspoken agreements between those already in power.

            I see no other reason why communication prices are so far off the supply/demand curve.

          • I’m not sure my provider has all that much volume. While the county has 35 people per square mile my “township” has something like one person per 500 square miles. Population density away from the cable is very sparse.

            We’ve got a second provider in the area, as of a few months ago. But at this point the two companies are not providing a lot of competition for each other. They’ve set up their stations so that they reach into different valleys and on opposite sides of ridges/mountains. Maybe later.
            My original (but unstated) question was whether we might see competition coming from wireless internet. If faster rates transmission rates might bring the cell phone tower owners into the game.

          • I think the cell providers could enter the game tomorrow if they so desired, but to be competitive in that market space they would have to cut their margins. The lost revenue from the other sectors would not be made up in the added volume, so they steer clear.

            However, if we cut their margins down by another means, say, by making the big 3 actually compete, prices drop and serious talks about entering that market are entertained – even if they don’t happen, they would at least be discussed.

            Just my two cents (Sorry, I’ve become a little annoyed with network operators over the past few years. The more I learn about them, the more I see them as milking society).

  • The answer to the FCC, congress, and the courts’ idiocy in not regarding the internet as a utility may indeed be wireless. We as voters have a right to demand that since spectrum is owned by the public and leased, there are certain rules that we can put into place to guarantee the viability of competition. Oh, wait, yeah, the cell carriers are already the worst offenders against neutrality. DAMNIT.

  • Solar Jets???????????????????????????? I do not see how powering a jet engine with solar power is possible. Please explain.

Comments are closed.