Google will be conducting test flights of its first drones this year after purchasing aerial vehicle manufacturer Titan Aerospace.
The drones will be used as atmospheric satellites, part of Google’s plan to provide internet access to areas without ground-based access and the four billion people currently without access, its senior vice president of product, Sundar Pichai, revealed during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
Pichai said that the Titan drones were at the same stage of development as Project Loon – Google’s atmospheric balloons used to deliver internet access – were two years ago. Loon launched a pilot with approximately 30 balloons in rural New Zealand in 2013.
The new lightweight solar-powered drones are being developed to maintain high altitude, hovering in the stratosphere for long periods. They act as an alternative to a satellite by beaming internet onto a target area – much like satellite TV companies such as Sky do from geostationary satellites.
Pichai explained that the Titan drones and Google’s balloons would work in tandem, but that drones were easier to put into place and keep in a targeted area. They could also be deployed to provide internet on demand where access has been removed because of disaster scenarios or similar.
Google is looking to partner with local internet service providers to create an overlapping network, so that consumers will not have to worry about where the internet is coming from, simply to connect and go, Pichai said.
Titan Aerospace, manufacturer of the atmospheric satellites, was bought by Google in April 2014 following interest from both Google and Facebook. The US technology companies have similar interests in drones, with Facebook’s internet.org initiative working to connect the next billion people to the internet through free or subsidised mobile broadband.