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Facebook drones? Report says yes. (+video)

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… a drone with Internet access? New reports point to Facebook investing in drone technology company Titan Aerospace to get the next billion people online.

Facebook's latest acquisition: Drones?!
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If you follow the goings on of major technology companies, you’ve no doubt heard the term “the next billion," in reference to how the next billion Internet users will come online. This is the focus of many major tech companies, hoping that the explosion of connectivity will translate to more customers and users. One of the most vocal tech companies in this conversation has been Facebook.

What does Facebook think will lead to more friend requests and photo tags? Solar-powered satellite drones, according to new reports.

TechCrunch reported Monday that Facebook is in talks to purchase Titan Aerospace, a drone manufacturer, in order to provide Internet access via aerial drones, according to a source with access to information about the deal. Reportedly, this deal is worth $60 million.

If the deal goes through, TechCrunch reports that the company would build 11,000 of the “Solara 60” unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, models.  The idea would be that these drones would fly to near-orbital levels (and importantly above Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation airspace, more on that in a moment) and act as a communications satellite, blanketing poorly connected or unconnected areas with Internet access.

These aren’t your run-of-the-mill package delivery drones. The Solera 60 lifts-off using internal battery packs, but can run up to five years at heights up to 12 miles above sea level solely on solar energy. The UAV can support up to 250 pounds of bulk.

Drones occupy murky legal waters. Currently, commercial drones in FAA airspace, which ranges from the ground up to 60,000 feet, require a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot, and operating approval. Privately owned drones can be operated in areas away from populated areas, and must adhere to the FAA’s model aircraft guidance. Private sector companies can obtain an experimental airworthiness certificate to conduct research.

The Solara 60 could cruise higher than 65,000 feet, which means the only issue for launching the drones in the US would be the lift-off. However, the FAA is currently testing new regulations as drone technology advancements persist, and many believe commercial drones will become more accepted in the near future.

Facebook has been vocal about the need to expand Internet access for sometime. In August, it backed the launch of the Internet.org initiative, devoted to bringing affordable Internet access to the five billion people who lack connectivity.

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“There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy,” wrote Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in a release. “Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges, including making internet access available to those who cannot currently afford it.” 

Facebook, if this news proves true, isn’t the first company to think of expanding Internet connection via aerial vehicles. In June, Google launched “Project Loon,” an experiment in which a ring of balloons fly around the globe through wind, and provide Internet access to people on the ground below.

Drones, balloons? Here's a message to the "next billion": looking for Internet? Just look up.


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