Google Inc. said Monday it agreed to buy Titan Aerospace, a startup maker of high-altitude drones, as the Internet search giant adds more aerial technology to collect images and get more of the world’s population online.
Google didn’t disclose a purchase price for Titan, of Moriarty, N.M., whose solar-powered drones are intended to fly for years.
Earlier this year, Facebook had been in talks to buy Titan. But Facebook later said it was buying Ascenta, a U.K.-based aerospace company that has also been working on solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles, for $20 million.
Titan and its roughly 20 employees will stay in New Mexico and the company will continue to be run by Chief Executive Vern Raburn, a technology-industry veteran who previously headed Symantec Corp. and Microsoft Corp.’s consumer-products division.
Google said the Titan team will work closely with Google’s Project Loon, which is building large, high-altitude balloons that send Internet signals to areas of the world that are currently not online. Titan may also work with Makani, another early-stage Google project that is developing an airborne wind turbine that it hopes will generate energy more efficiently.
Areas of focus for these teams will include advanced material design for lightweight flying vehicles and algorithms for wind prediction and flight planning.
Titan says its drones will be able to collect real-time, high-resolution images of the earth, carry other atmospheric sensors and support voice and data services. That type of technology could also help other Google businesses, including its Maps division.
“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,” a Google spokesman said in a statement.
Titan is developing two dragonfly-shaped drones, both of which use batteries charged by wing-mounted solar panels to remain aloft at night. The smaller model, called the Solara 50, has a wingspan of 164 feet, slightly larger than a Boeing 767.
On its website, Titan claims that its drones can help deliver Internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second using specialty communications equipment. That would be significantly faster than broadband speeds available in most developed countries.
The company says it expects “initial commercial operations” in 2015.
As the developing world goes online, Google and Facebook are battling to be the first point of contact. The search giant has its Android mobile operating system, which last year captured 79% world-wide market share of smartphones shipped, according to Strategy Analytics.
Facebook hopes to boost its user base in poorer countries with two projects, including a version of its service tuned for cheap, feature phones called “Facebook for Every Phone.” Another product, Facebook Zero, was launched in 2010 and is a stripped down mobile website launched in concert with mobile operators who don’t charge data fees when the service is used.
Facebook’s recent announcement that it plans to buy WhatsApp for $19 billion also gives it a new weapon to attract users in the developing world. The WhatsApp messaging app is particularly popular in countries such as India where telecom carriers still routinely charge for standard text messages.
By Alistair Barr and Reed Albergotti