FORTUNE -- Google isn’t the only web giant buying its way into the robotics game, or the ubiquitous global Internet game, for that matter. According to TechCrunch, Facebook is in talks to buy Titan Aerospace, a maker of high-flying, solar powered drone aircraft capable of staying aloft for up to five years without ever having to land or refuel -- ideal platforms for beaming Internet to remote regions of the world where Facebook’s “next billion” are currently waiting to be plugged into the web.
If the rumors are true -- Facebook declined to comment on what a representative termed “rumors and speculation” in an email to Fortune -- Facebook (fb) could soon leverage Titan’s technology to challenge everyone from Google (goog) to mobile carriers in parts of the world where Internet is scarce (and where CEO Mark Zuckerberg sees Facebook’s next big growth opportunity). A fleet of 11,000 Titan aircraft could loiter in the sky high above remote regions providing enough signal to connect populations below with the rest of the world. And if Facebook owns the drones, it stands to reason those people will be connecting through platforms like Facebook’s eponymous social network or recent acquisition WhatsApp.
The concept is very similar to Google’s Project Loon, which is currently testing a network of high-flying weather balloons acting as overhead Internet hubs for remote regions in the South Pacific. But Titan’s technology could trump Google’s in several aspects. Titan’s aircraft are more like low-flying satellites than high-flying aircraft (in fact the company refers to them as “atmospheric satellites”), capable of carrying a whole lot of payload for long periods of time.
Unlike conventional aircraft, the solar-powered Solara 50 and Solara 60 don’t have to regularly land to refuel -- onboard batteries store enough energy during the day to power the aircraft through the night (as well as enough to power 70 pounds and 250 pounds of payload, respectively). Unlike satellites and balloons, they can be rapidly repositioned to provide coverage where needed. If something goes wrong, they can land for repairs and relaunch rapidly -- something far more difficult for balloons and impossible for satellites. Flying in an atmospheric sweet spot roughly 10 miles above sea level known as the tropopause, the aircraft are generally untroubled by winds, weather, commercial air traffic, and most international aviation regulations (the FAA, for example, stops regulating air traffic at roughly 60,000 feet).
Moreover, if the acquisition proves real, Facebook could be getting Titan at just the right time. Thus far privately held Titan (the company has offices in Washington, D.C. and New York City, but runs its research and development out of Moriarty, N.M.) has supported itself through seed funding, and while it has demonstrated its technology in test flights, the Solara 50 and Solara 60 won’t be ready for commercial service until later this year and next year, respectively. When Fortune spoke to Titan leadership in August at the world’s biggest drone confab in Washington, D.C., senior engineers stressed that their focus is on producing a sub-$2 million aircraft that is simple to operate and maintain and that they were almost ready to put one in the sky, though they hadn’t -- yet.
At a reported $60 million, the deal would cost just a fraction of what Facebook just shelled out for WhatsApp. But Titan could be an important accessory technology for WhatsApp and could help answer the much-debated question of why Facebook paid so much for a messaging app. If Facebook scooping up a drone manufacturer comes off as a strange way for a software company to move into hardware, consider:
- Facebook is committed to connecting its “next billion,” and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has both vocally and financially supported efforts to bring the two-thirds of humankind who aren’t on the Internet into the fold. (Facebook is one of the largest backers of the Internet.org initiative, which aims to bring Internet access to the 5 billion people in the world that don’t have ready access to the web.) With Titan’s technology Facebook could put Internet hubs into the sky in huge numbers relatively quickly -- much faster than carriers will lay cable, anyhow. According to TechCrunch, Facebook plans to do exactly that via a fleet of 11,000 Solara 60 aircraft that will be built solely in support of Internet.org’s mission.
- With another 1 or 2 billion people connected to the web, social media platforms like Facebook and messaging apps like WhatsApp become decidedly more valuable. This is especially true considering that the signal provided by aircraft like Titan’s would be relatively weak compared to a fiber optic connection. Bandwidth-heavy applications won’t fly, at least not at first, but messaging, status updates, newsfeeds -- basically everything Facebook provides -- would be natural fits for these networks and their billion-plus new users.
- All that basically makes Facebook its own service provider, giving Facebook a lot of control. Not only would this instantly start that “next billion” out using Facebook’s platforms, and it would give Facebook further leverage against carriers across the globe when it attempts to negotiate “zero-rate” deals in which people can use Facebook without it counting against their data plans. Facebook has arranged several such deals in the developing world and argues that it increases profits for mobile carriers by encouraging overall mobile use, but some carriers disagree. If Facebook could bypass carriers and provide its own Internet-in-the-sky, carriers would be forced to consider zero-rating more seriously.
- Taking a longer view, Titan makes Facebook much more than just a means of moving data across networks. The Solara 60 is designed to carry 250 pounds of payload, likely more than Facebook would need to beam Internet to the ground. The remaining space could be rented out by governments or research agencies, or packed with Facebook’s own data collecting instruments. Mapping, weather research and forecasting, atmospheric science, civil aviation tracking -- Facebook could gather a lot of persistent, rich data from way up there, either for its own use or for sale to others. Don’t forget that Titan’s technology had a value proposition before Facebook arrived, and if Facebook buys the company that value isn’t going anywhere.
If the deal happens, Facebook could create hundreds of millions or even billions of lifetime users whose first regular experience with the Internet is via Facebook’s infrastructure and apps. And it could become an important collector and disseminator of data -- something like its competition in Mountain View -- in the offing.
Titan was not immediately available to comment for this story. Facebook declined to comment.