Titan is developing ‘atmospheric satellites’ – that is, autonomous UAS that can continuously fly in the upper reaches of the Earth's atmosphere for five years at a time using solar power. These UAS function much like orbital satellites but are less expensive and offer numerous applications.
Intent on providing affordable Internet access across the globe as part of the Internet.org initiative, Facebook is looking to Titan to help fulfill that objective, according to TechCrunch, which first reported the potential deal. Titan's UAS support voice and data communications, a functionality that Facebook will apparently use to bring wireless connectivity throughout the developing world, starting with Africa. Titan's production and manufacturing capabilities would be strictly dedicated to the Internet.org project under the pending acquisition.
‘Titan has not proven the atmospheric satellite concept can function as advertised,’ comments Michael Blades, aerospace and defense senior industry analyst for Frost and Sullivan, a growth partnership company based in Mountain View, Calif., that provides market research and consultative services. ‘However, if Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are interested in acquiring the company solely to place Titan UAS in the atmosphere to provide Web-related content to remote areas, it's obvious they believe in the technology.
‘This could have a profound effect on both the UAS and satellite industries,’ he adds. ‘If Facebook is able to provide substantial amounts of bandwidth via high-altitude UAS, then it follows that other companies will use the same methods for other forms of digital communications: cell phones, television programming, etc.’
According to Blades, launching communications satellites into geosynchronous Earth orbit can cost up to $1 billion per satellite. If the atmospheric UAS concept can be realized, Blades notes that a significant market will quickly develop for these platforms, and the commercial communications satellite market will feel the effect.
Provided that Facebook does indeed purchase Titan, the company will reportedly manufacture 11,000 UAS based on the Solara 60 platform. The Solara 60 has a maximum payload of 250 pounds and uses solar-charged batteries to fly at night, reports Ars Technica. In addition, the UAS will operate between 60,000 feet and 70,000 feet in low wind speed, above essentially all weather patterns.
In regards to Facebook's aspirations for global Internet access, Ars Technica says that a single Solara UAS can cover approximately an 18-mile radius as a communications relay. If grouped together, the aircraft could provide long-term services for regional Internet systems.
TechCrunch adds that Facebook would be able to operate the UAS without much interference from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as airspace above 60,000 feet is beyond the agency's jurisdiction. Hence, only the initial launch and subsequent climb of the aircraft would be subject to the FAA's regulations. Outside of the U.S., the developing markets that Facebook is targeting will likely not have as stringent guidelines for UAS operations.
‘As for regulatory issues, there is an easy solution,’ says Blades. ‘The altitudes where these UAS will fly are unpopulated; airliners fly much lower. It would be relatively easy for the FAA to set aside a launch corridor for atmospheric UAS where other aircraft are not allowed to fly unless given specific clearance. This would be similar to the military operations area or FAA restricted area concepts.
‘The bottom line – a Facebook/Titan Aerospace partnership could be the beginning of a new paradigm in how information is transmitted around the globe,’ he concludes.
Photo courtesy of Titan Aerospace