Google takes flight

Google has agreed to purchase for an undisclosed sum the two year-old start-up maker of high-altitude solar-powered drones Titan Aerospace, based in New Mexico. Titan claims a number applications for its drones, including data delivery, crop monitoring and search-and-rescue aid. However the unmanned aircraft can remain in flight for as long as five years without having to land or refuel, which has led to them being classed as 'atmospheric satellites' with corresponding communications potential.

Earlier this year Titan was in discussions with Facebook, which is also keen to acquire the kind of off-network coverage that the drones can deliver - it later agreed to pay $20 million for Ascenta, a UK aerospace company that also has been working on solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles. However Google offered a better deal. "It’s 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 spokesperson. “It’s why we’re so excited to welcome Titan Aerospace to the Google family."

Drone makers are at the leading edge of a promising but yet to be fully tried technology to beam internet access to parts of the world not served by fixed telecommunications networks or cellphone towers. Drones have other applications of relevance to Google: its interest in expanding its imagery capabilities to enhance its Google Earth product for example.