Titan Aerospace drone
The solar-powered drone can fly at 60,000 feet for up to five years at a time.Titan Aerospace

Facebook is looking to buy autonomous drone manufacturer Titan Aerospace for $60 million (£36m) in a bid to provide internet access to developing countries through the Internet.org initiative.

The solar powered drones fly at a near-orbital altitude above 60,000 feet and can remain in flight for up to five years without needing to land and be recharged; it is understood that Facebook's acquisition of Titan would see the company initially build 11,000 drones.

According to a source of TechCrunch, Facebook will begin by using the drones to blanket parts of Africa with wireless internet access, and once the acquisiton has completed, Facebook and the Internet.org initiative will be Titan Aerospace's soul customer.

Led by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Internet.org is a partnership between the social network, Samsung, Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm and others with the goal of connecting the five billion people yet to have access to the internet.

An on-ramp to the internet

Speaking at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month, Zuckerberg described Internet.org as "an on-ramp to the internet", suggesting it would be used to deliver basic information like local news, weather and food prices to developing countries.

Zuckerberg admitted the scheme would be run at a loss for some time, but sees it as a long-term investment which will eventually see the rest of the internet brought to developing countries.

The 29-year-old believes connecting the world "will be one of the most important things we do in our lifetimes".

A notable exception from the initiative is Google, which last year began testing giant balloons capable of broadcasting internet access to some of the world's most remote areas, known as Project Loon.

Flying at twice the height of commercial planes, the drones can conduct most of the operations of an orbital satellite, but without the expensive costs associated with being launched into space.

The drones use an electric motor to gain altitude, before solar energy collected from the sun is used to reach an altitude of 60,000 feet, where they can circle the Earth for five years at a time; the autonomous flying machines offer many potential uses - such as weather monitoring, Earth imaging and mapping, and communications.

Facebook's recent $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp could be linked to any potential drone purchases, as the simple messaging service could be broadcast and maintained over the internet connection provided by the drones.

Merely altruistic for now, Facebook is playing a long game with Internet.org and will hope its social network - and the advertisements within it - can be offered to those five billion new internet users once the infrastructure of developing countries improves.

When contacted by IBTimes UK, a Facebook spokesman said the company has "no comment" on the potential acquisition.