The battle between Facebook and Google these days begins to resemble the old arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The latest escalation began in early March with a report from Tech Crunch, suggesting that Facebook was in the process of purchasing high-tech drone-maker Titan Aerospace. While Facebook has yet to verify this purchase, the social media giant has now confirmed it will be utilizing “drones, satellites and lasers” in a bid to take Facebook to the skies.
Why drones, you might ask? It’s part of Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic project, Internet.org, which aims to “connect” the two-thirds of the planet without online access—the tech industry version of world domination. Interestingly, this will be competing head-on with Google’s more whimsically titled, Project Loon—named not after the waterfowl, but after the use of high-altitude balloons. Loon has the same grand purpose in mind.
There’s no doubt that expanding the reach of the Internet is in the best interests of both companies. It’s hard to be on the Internet and not bump into one of these two giants, and presumably adding potentially billions of new users would mean a windfall for both.
But these projects are about more than merely funneling power and money to the billionaire digerati. People with no access to the Web are inevitably at a severe disadvantage, and the simple application of WiFi may end up dealing a blow to global problems of illiteracy, poverty and disease. It is a noble aim, regardless of the commercial benefits to Google or Facebook.
While the high hopes and worthy goals are inspiring, the chances of either company succeeding are far less encouraging. Both projects have monumental hurdles to scale before being in a position to do the world any good.
First, there are the obvious physical challenges: For Google, that involves getting hundreds of balloons to stay up for 100 days and keeping them on course, while combatting wind speeds of 120 knots. For Facebook, the challenge is to control millions of dollars worth of equipment, making it safe enough and stable enough to handle the winds and prevent crashes in populated areas. Those kinds of technical problems can (possibly) be surmounted with ingenuity.
Then, there are the politics. Ignoring the less-than-sterling reputation of U.S. drones for the moment and the questionable privacy of online data with the new technology, is it even remotely feasible that governments in China, Russia or Iran, for example, would freely allow Google’s balloons or Facebook’s drones to fly about in their airspace? In March, a ruling by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board paved the way for commercial drone flights to begin legally nationally. This gives Facebook the option of starting a targeted effort to bring underserved regions in rural America online and avoiding political controversy.
Regardless of the success of the broader project, there are other benefits that might come with purchasing drones and channelling Phileas Fogg. There is a potential for precise mapping, more accurate weather forecasting, civil aviation tracking and retrieval of all kinds of never-before accessible data. For Facebook, purchasing Titan Aerospace and hiring a few experts would cost just a fraction of its WhatsApp acquisition, and those drones could be valuable accessories for the instant messenger.
The balloons and drones are also exciting enough ideas to get the world talking. If the plan all along was simply to earn some excitable press inches, promote themselves as two of the world’s “coolest” brands and amaze the youth of today with their moon-shooting ingenuity, then they are already leagues (or would that be air miles?) ahead of the competition.