Google buys solar-powered drone company

Google on Monday announced the acquisition of Titan Aerospace for an undisclosed sum in a move that sees the technology giant enter the unmanned race for the skies.

Following Facebook’s $20 million purchase of U.K.-based aerospace company Ascenta – which has been working on the development of unmanned, solar-powered aerial drones for the past few years – Google acted fast to usurp an expected bid by Facebook to also acquire Titan Aerospace.

The New Mexico-based company has been working on the development of solar-powered drones designed to fly unmanned and nonstop for years at a time – a technology Google hopes to utilize in order to extend its influence and reach across the most remote corners of earth.

Although the total purchase sum was undisclosed, a source close to Google said that the company offered to top any offer from Facebook for Titan Aerospace. The company, which has a staff of just 20, will remain at its location in New Mexico to continue its work on its promising – but as-yet largely unproven – technology that Google hopes can help beam internet access to areas of the globe that remain unserved by cellphone towers or telephone wires.

Solar-powered drones are an attractive proposition to company like Google and Facebook because of their reliability and stability in often adverse weather conditions. Balloons, previously utilized to scour hard-to-reach locations, are susceptible to changing weather conditions, while fossil fuel- or battery-powered unmanned aircraft are expensive to run and possess a shorter range.

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.

The intention is to collect real-time, high-resolution images of the earth, and to bring greater depth and detail to atmospheric sensors used in many of Google’s applications, such as Google Maps.

"It is still early days, but atmospheric satellites could help bring internet access to millions of people, and help solve other problems, including disaster relief and environmental damage like deforestation," said a Google statement announcing the acquisition.

Solar’s influence

Titan Aerospace caught Google’s attention thanks to its innovative dragonfly-shaped drones that are powered by its wing-mounted solar panels and onboard battery storage that allows the planes to fly at night. The drones are huge aircraft – the smaller model, the Solara 50, is actually larger than a Boeing 767 jetliner, boasting a 164-foot wingspan.

Commercial operations for the technology are still approximately 12 months away, and some experts in the industry are skeptical as to whether the solar technology is currently advanced enough to deliver the kind of long-range reliability that Google will require.

"The problem with solar planes is that they are limited to smaller payloads," said drone expert Patrick Egan. "At night you are not collecting energy from the sun and it takes a lot of power to broadcast internet signals."

However, a source close to Facebook has revealed that the social media giants had been reviewing Titan Aerospace’s solar-powered drones some six months ago, and were impressed enough to open talks with the company about a possible acquisition. Google were evidently also eager to speak with Titan, and are believed to have gazumped Facebook’s offer.