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Attack of the drones: Facebook eyes acquisition to power 11,000-strong airborne Internet army

Facebook is reportedly in discussions to acquire Titan Aerospace, a manufacturer of drones, for around $60 million (£36 million).

The aerospace engineering firm has designed and built a prototype of the Solara, a light-weight solar-powered drone that can fly at 65,000ft (11km) for five years without landing.

The Solara aircraft is 60m (196ft) from wing to wing, and is completely self-sufficient due to the over 3,000 solar panels that cover its entire upper surface, producing about 7kW of electricity, and has a mission range of 14 million kilometres.

This new kind of satellite, dubbed an "atmosat", has gained a lot of attention recently as a low-cost alternative to traditional near-earth satellites. The obvious advantage is that the Solara doesn't need to be launched as part of a space mission, with the cooperation of NASA or other space agencies - and so it costs a whole lot less.

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Facebook is apparently interested in acquiring the drone manufacture to help realise its project, a plan to connect every human being on the planet to the Internet over the next decade. The powerful unmanned aircraft are capable of carrying a 100kg payload into the atmosphere, which would be more than enough for simple Wi-Fi broadcasting equipment.

The social network's plans are apparently to build an enormous fleet, comprising a whopping 11,000 aircraft, to cover the whole of Africa with free Wi-Fi signal.

Mark Zuckerberg talked at length about the plans for at a keynote during this year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

The drones will be particularly useful in the efforts to bring Internet access to rural Africa and other parts of the world that are not connected. Experts have pointed out that Facebook's recent acquisition of WhatsApp could be used in tandem with the drone-powered Internet systems to send messages in those countries with a weak and slow internet connection.

Coupled with that, the data compression technology Facebook bought back in October, Onavo, could be used so that functions need less transmitted data to make them work.

Other commentators have speculated that a high-flying drone fleet will give the social networking giant greater leverage when negotiating so-called "zero-rate" deals in the developing world, which allow users to access its Messaging app without paying fees for mobile data.

The extremely high altitude of the Solara models places them well above the altitude at which commercial airliners conduct their flights, at around 30,000 feet. It even puts the craft well above what counts as regulated air-space in the United States, since the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) only covers a jurisdiction goes of up to 60,000 feet.

The height of the Solara flights also means that they are out of reach of turbulence, sitting in a calm atmospheric area known as the tropopause.

Titan Aerospace expect initial commercial operations to begin in 2015.

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