Expect the unexpected from giants' battle for air supremacy

A year ago, if anyone had said that Google and Facebook would be fighting each other to acquire drone manufacturers and technology, you might have rightly called that person crazy. Loony, even. But that’s what’s going on now.

Google announced this week that it bought Titan Aerospace, a New Mexico-based maker of drones. That follows stories more than a month ago that Facebook was in the process of buying it.

Titan’s drone technology will be used by Google both for imaging purposes and to bolster Project Loon, which is aimed at bringing Internet connectivity to parts of the world that can’t be economically reached by conventional means. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, via Internet.org and the new Facebook Connectivity Lab, wants to use drones for the same purpose.

Project Loon is also making progress. The idea is to deliver Internet service by using a globe-spanning web of balloons steered along stratospheric wind streams solely by changing their altitude. One test balloon recently logged one lap of the Earth in 22 days.

These initiatives are research and development projects right now, and are a long way from actually providing service to consumers on the ground. But the out-of-the-box knowledge Google and Facebook gain from these experiments could have – will have – unpredictable consequences for telecoms technology. It doesn’t matter how weird or unusual the original problem was, novel solutions can be put to very conventional uses. Which can be very disruptive for incumbent telecoms companies. Which might be the whole point.