The technology world is abuzz with the recent announcement that Google is buying Titan Aerospace, a maker of high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that Facebook had only recently been considering (it bought Ascenta for $20 million instead). Ostensibly, both companies are looking at UAVs (also referred to as “drones”) as an opportunity to deliver Internet access to the roughly five billion people who lack reliable land-based access today. But that goal still leaves many people wondering about the business rationale – how will billing work, who will pay to advertise to the unconnected masses, and what are those technology giants really up to anyway?
To understand why content providers are spending billions on drones, you have to think about their long-term strategy. Recently, there was a huge defeat for Google and other content providers in a ruling about what’s called “Net Neutrality.” It basically says that landline and mobile carriers like AT&T and Verizon can start charging more for people to access certain sites, even though they swear the action will not be anticompetitive. So, for example, you might have to pay the carrier extra to see YouTube (which Google owns) or Instagram (which Facebook owns) or Netflix or Amazon Prime movies. In fact, just in February Netflix struck a deal to pay Comcast, which supposedly is already showing faster access times, but has not stopped the partners from bickering over unfair competition and exertion of power. Also, AT&T has a $500 million plan to crush Netflix and Hulu, so the competitive backstabbing has already begun.
Where do drones disrupt this strategy? Most obviously, having their own networks would allow Facebook and Google to bypass the domination of wireless and wireline carriers (like AT&T and Verizon in the U.S.) whose business practices – e.g. knocking down Net Neutrality – are geared towards throttling content providers like Facebook, Google, and their partners and subsidiaries like YouTube. Need more bandwidth? New neighborhood being built? Blackout? Natural catastrophe? Launch more drones – and expand service in hours, not years. Drones serving network connectivity allow Google, Facebook, and Amazon to bypass the toll lanes – and, incidentally, make instantly obsolete the landline infrastructure that their enemies Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon have spent decades and tens to hundreds of billions of dollars building out. Connectivity in emerging markets is a feint – look for delivering content in the developed world to be the first battle, and call these Machiavellian strategies the “Game of Drones.”
Could this really happen? Both drone technology and wireless connectivity technology are relatively mature and work well. Both are still improving every year of course, and it is possible to deliver some connectivity via drones today. However, more innovation is needed for them to be commercially viable, and future incremental development will be about integrating and improving parts, so more people can have more bandwidth with greater reliability and lower cost. For example, the engineers might integrate the broadband transceiver antenna with the drone’s wings (as Stratasys and Optomec have tried — client registration required) which could eliminate the cost and weight of a separate antenna, while allowing the antenna to also be very large and more effective. Drones’ needs could drive development of battery chemistries that outperform lithium-ion (client registration required), like lithium-sulfur (client registration required) from companies like Oxis Energy (client registration required). High-performance composites and lightweight, lower-power electronics technologies like conductive polymers (client registration required) will also be key.
What’s next? One of the most obvious additional uses would be to attach cameras, and use them for monitoring things like traffic, agriculture, and parks, even finding empty parking spaces – things that an AT&T repair van can never do. Maybe the drones become telemedicine’s robotic first responders (client registration required), sending imagery of accidents as they happen, and swooping down to help doctors reach injured victims within seconds, not minutes. While these examples may seem far-fetched, it’s really very hard to say exactly what they will be used for, only because our own imaginations are very limited.
Within the autonomous airspace space, there’s much more flying around than just glider-style UAVs. For example, Google’s “Project Loon” has similar stated goals of delivering internet access. The new investment in Titan does not necessarily mean Google is leaving lighter-than-air technologies; it’s just that Google has already invested in that technology and is now looking at other aircraft platforms for doing similar things in different environments. Investments in small satellites from companies like SkyBox and PlanetLabs are also taking off. And of course, there are Amazon’s delivery drones – rotary-wing UAVs more like helicopters: speed and navigation in small spaces are important, and they need to carry the weight of packages, so they need to be small and powerful.
Each of these technologies has spin-off effects – both threats and opportunities – for companies in adjacent spaces, such as materials or onboard power. Only batteries or liquid fuels are dense enough energy sources for rotary-wing aircraft, while Google’s Titan and Loon aircraft are more like glider planes or blimps: big, light, and slow, just staying in roughly the same place for hours, days, or even years. Solar energy needs a large area for collecting solar energy, so big glider and blimp drones can use solar. Technology providers in these areas stand to gain if more companies deploy their own UAV fleets.
So, UAVs are an important strategic technology for both companies, even if the money-making part of the business is far off. Yes, someday you might have a Google drone as your ISP, but that’s not the primary business case behind these investments today. Google and Facebook need to make investments in these airborne platforms for the same reasons that countries did 100 years ago – to defend their territory, metaphorically speaking. For example, Nokia should have done a better job launching smartphones before Apple and Google, and Kodak should have launched digital cameras before all the consumer electronics companies did. If Google and Facebook (and Amazon, and others…) don’t have drone technology in five to 10 years, they may be as bankrupt as Nokia and Kodak (ironically, Nokia launched mobile phone cameras, which accelerated Kodak’s bankruptcy). Instead, it may be today’s mobile phone and cable television providers who go the way of the landline.
Looking beyond the land of information technology, these examples are powerful illustrations of the fact that we seldom actually know what any new technology is really going to be used for. Even today, we dismiss mobile phone cameras, Facebook, and Twitter as frivolous social tools, but where would Tunisia and Egypt be today without them? Local Motors (client registration required) is just making one-off dune buggies – until GE sees that their microfactories are the future of manufacturing appliances, too. Crowdfunding is just a bunch of kids selling geegaws – until products like the Pebble smartphone beat the Samsung Gear (client registration required), start challenging the now-retreating Nike Fuelband, and even attack the smart home market. Google and Facebook might be saying today that they intend to bring connectivity to new places, even if in reality nobody at all can really say what they’ll do in 2018. While they probably have secret plans, those plans are almost certainly wrong – but better than no plan at all. Companies that plan to survive beyond a few quarterly earnings calls have to make sure they are well positioned to catch whatever falls from new technology’s blue skies.