Tech companies rethink internet drones – Business Insider – Business Insider


Sergey Brin
Google cofounder Sergey
Brin

Yudhi Mahatma/Antara
Foto/Reuters


It sounds like something out of science fiction: A solar-powered,
autonomous drone that can fly for weeks or even months at a time,
beaming high-speed internet to parts of the planet that have
never been connected before.

That was Google’s ambitious plan when it bought a
company called Titan Aerospace in 2014. The idea was for Google
to beam internet access (and, of course Google services it can
sell ads against) to a whole new population of users getting
online for the first time.

But Titan didn’t last long at Google. After Google reorganized
into the conglomerate Alphabet, the Titan project was folded into
X, the Alphabet company that explores “moonshot” projects, and
then merged with Wing, another drone project within X,
focused on using drones for package deliveries. At some
point within the last year, X decided to kill Titan altogether
and reassign some of its employees to other divisions, the
company
confirmed to Business Insider on Wednesday
.

It’s the latest setback in the space race that swept through the
internet industry a few years ago, as Google, Facebook and others
scrambled to build satellites, drones and other aircraft capable
of beaming internet, snapping photos and providing other useful
services from the skies. 

Skybox Imaging, a satellite company that Google acquired for $500
million in 2014 and renamed Terra Bella, is now on the auction
block,
the Wall Street Journal recently reported
.

Facebook has talked up its desire to use internet drones and
satellites to much fanfare, but with little to show so far. Most
notably,
Facebook’s Aquila drone was damaged
in its first test flight,
something the company wasn’t exactly forthcoming about when it
boasted about the project to The Verge in a
glitzy feature story
.


Titan Aerospace
A rendering of a Titan Aerospace
drone.

Titan
Aerospace


Facebook also
lost its internet satellite AMOS-6 in a SpaceX rocket
explosion
 in September. Although Facebook wasn’t to
blame for the explosion, the incident was a big, costly setback
to Facebook’s plans. Zuckerberg said at the time
that Facebook is still committed to airborne internet.

To be fair, Facebook and Alphabet aren’t trying to solve an easy
problem. And it’s one that could pay off big time if they can be
among the first to help connect a new generation of internet
users around the world.

But the space race is well outside the comfort zone these
internet companies are accustomed to operating in. The regulatory
red tape involved is massive, particularly when
compared to the internet industry which has long enjoyed a
relatively hands-off approach from the government. And the bad
press and potential liabilities of a crash, explosion or other
mishap is a lot more tangible when it literally involves burning
wreckage.

Sure Google and Facebook have billions upon billions of dollars
in cash on their balance sheets. But even the deepest pockets
can’t forever fund projects that don’t pay off — and
delivering internet access from drones, satellites or balloons is
a very expensive, and still unproven business.

X says it still plans to pursue the internet-from-the
sky goal through Project Loon, the division that makes
high-altitude balloons. But given the recent pressure on Alphabet
companies to prove that these experiments can become real
businesses one day, even Alphabet’s beautiful balloons may soon
run out of air. 

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