Google’s research sibling X shuts down drones project
Project to build solar-powered drone to provide internet access in remote areas closed in favour of competing high-altitude balloon scheme
By Alex Hern
Jan 12 2017
Google owner Alphabet’s subsidiary research company, X, has shut down its project aimed at building a solar-powered drone intended to bring internet access to remote areas.
The project, which stemmed from an acquisition Google made in April 2014 of New Mexico-based Titan Aerospace, was deemed by X to be less promising than a competing attempt to use lightweight weather balloons for the same purpose.
“The team from Titan was brought into X in late-2015. We ended our exploration of high-altitude UAVs for internet access shortly after,” an X spokesperson said. “By comparison, at this stage the economics and technical feasibility of Project Loon [its high-altitude balloon project] present a much more promising way to connect rural and remote parts of the world. Many people from the Titan team are now using their expertise as part of other high-flying projects at X, including Loon and Project Wing.”
In ditching solar-powered drones, X has taken a different stance to rival Facebook, which has gone all-in on the technology with its Aquila project. The Aquila drone, a 130ft-long aircraft developed in Bridgwater, Somerset, is intended to circle in the upper atmosphere, using lasers to broadcast data down to base stations on the ground.
Facebook reported a “successful” test flight for the drone in July 2016, but America’s national transportation safety board later revealed that in fact, the drone was blown off course upon landing, resulting in the end of its wing snapping off. In a follow-up interview with the Verge, Facebook’s Yael Maguire argued that, because the drone had flown perfectly in the air and only suffered damage upon landing, “we feel like we shared 99.9% of the details, from a time perspective.”