Google's Titan drone purchase about more than Internet access

Titan's team will work both with Project Loon and the Google Maps teams

Titan's Solara 50 unmanned, solar powered aircraft.

Titan's Solara 50 unmanned, solar powered aircraft.

Google has confirmed its acquisition of drone maker Titan Aerospace and hinted that the technology could be used for a lot more than providing Internet access to remote parts of the world.

Titan makes unmanned, solar-powered aircraft that can fly at 65,000 feet and act as "atmospheric satellites," beaming Internet access to parts of the world that are underserved today by wired and cellular networks.

That fits in with Google's Project Loon, which is experimenting with high-altitude balloons as another way it can bring Internet access to remote areas.

But that's not all Google has in mind. "It's still early days," a spokesman said via email Monday, but along with Internet access Titan's drones could help in other areas, including disaster relief and combating environmental damage like deforestation.

He didn't go into details, but it's not hard to imagine how a fleet of camera-equipped drones could help build a more accurate picture of the destruction of rain forests, or feed information to rescuers on the ground after events like mudslides and earthquakes. They could also, potentially, greatly enhance Google Maps.

Google has already involved itself extensively with crisis relief efforts, including after last year's Oklahoma tornadoes and the flooding in Uttrakhand, in Northern India. So far, the efforts have largely involved helping people to locate and communicate with each other, and building maps to aid relief and recovery efforts.

Using unmanned aircraft to provide Internet access isn't a new concept -- the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been working on a similar technology since at least 2010.

And Facebook and Amazon are also looking at drones as a way to expand their businesses and push into new areas. Amazon has discussed using drones for package delivery, while Facebook is exploring them for Internet access.

Facebook was reportedly interested in acquiring Titan before Google, but the talks apparently broke down. Instead, the company brought on team members from Ascenta, another drone maker.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said Facebook expects to have a working version of its own drone in the near future. And Titan is expected to make its drones commercially available next year.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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