It sounds like something out of science fiction: A solar-powered, autonomous drone that can fly for weeks or even months at a time, beaming high-speed internet to parts of the planet that have never been connected before.
That was Google’s ambitious plan when it bought a company called Titan Aerospace in 2014. The idea was for Google to beam internet access (and, of course Google services it can sell ads against) to a whole new population of users getting online for the first time.
But Titan didn’t last long at Google. After Google reorganized into the conglomerate Alphabet, the Titan project was folded into X, the Alphabet company that explores “moonshot” projects, and then merged with Wing, another drone project within X, focused on using drones for package deliveries. At some point within the last year, X decided to kill Titan altogether and reassign some of its employees to other divisions, the company confirmed to Business Insider on Wednesday.
It’s the latest setback in the space race that swept through the internet industry a few years ago, as Google, Facebook and others scrambled to build satellites, drones and other aircraft capable of beaming internet, snapping photos and providing other useful services from the skies.
Skybox Imaging, a satellite company that Google acquired for $500 million in 2014 and renamed Terra Bella, is now on the auction block, the Wall Street Journal recently reported.
Facebook has talked up its desire to use internet drones and satellites to much fanfare, but with little to show so far. Most notably, Facebook’s Aquila drone was damaged in its first test flight, something the company wasn’t exactly forthcoming about when it boasted about the project to The Verge in a glitzy feature story.
Facebook also lost its internet satellite AMOS-6 in a SpaceX rocket explosion in September. Although Facebook wasn’t to blame for the explosion, the incident was a big, costly setback to Facebook’s plans. Zuckerberg said at the time that Facebook is still committed to airborne internet.
To be fair, Facebook and Alphabet aren’t trying to solve an easy problem. And it’s one that could pay off big time if they can be among the first to help connect a new generation of internet users around the world.
But the space race is well outside the comfort zone these internet companies are accustomed to operating in. The regulatory red tape involved is massive, particularly when compared to the internet industry which has long enjoyed a relatively hands-off approach from the government. And the bad press and potential liabilities of a crash, explosion or other mishap is a lot more tangible when it literally involves burning wreckage.
Sure Google and Facebook have billions upon billions of dollars in cash on their balance sheets. But even the deepest pockets can’t forever fund projects that don’t pay off — and delivering internet access from drones, satellites or balloons is a very expensive, and still unproven business.
X says it still plans to pursue the internet-from-the sky goal through Project Loon, the division that makes high-altitude balloons. But given the recent pressure on Alphabet companies to prove that these experiments can become real businesses one day, even Alphabet’s beautiful balloons may soon run out of air.