Understanding Facebook and Google’s pursuit of drone technology

by John Naughton

The Observer

Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, one of the most revered branches of the inexact sciences was Kremlinology. In the West, newspapers, think tanks and governments retained specialists whose job was to scrutinize every scrap of evidence, gossip and rumor emanating from Moscow in the hope that it would provide some inkling of what the Soviet leadership was up to.

The commercial equivalent of Kremlinology is Google- and Facebook-watching. Although superficially more open than the Vladimir Putin regime, both organizations are pathologically secretive about their long-term aspirations and strategies. So those of us engaged in this strange spectator sport are driven to reading stock-market analysts’ reports and other ephemera, which is the technological equivalent of consulting the entrails of recently beheaded chickens.

Let us examine what little we know and see if we can make any sense of it. We know first of all that these two companies are run by smart people who have a deep understanding of the capabilities and potential of computing technology. We also know that these folks have: total control of their companies on account of a cunning two-tier shareholding structure, which effectively liberates them from stock-market control; megalomaniacal ambitions; and — for the time being at least — money-pumps, which provide limitless resources and enable their founders to indulge their ambitions and visions.

After that, all is speculation. The only thing we have to go on is what Google and Facebook have been up to in the public marketplace. And what they have been doing is acquiring companies in the way that, pace P.G. Wodehouse, ostriches go for brass doorknobs.

In the last 18 months, for example, Google has bought at least eight significant robotics companies and laid out $400 m to buy the London-based artificial intelligence firm Deepmind. Facebook, for its part, bought Instagram, a photo-sharing network, for $1 bn and paid an eye-watering $19 bn in cash and shares for WhatsApp, a messaging company. More puzzling was its decision to buy Oculus VR, a virtual-reality company, for $2 bn. And in the last few weeks, both companies have got into the pilotless-drones business. Google acquired Titan Aerospace, a U.S.-based startup that makes high-altitude drones, which cruise near the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere, while Facebook bought a U.K.-based company, Ascenta, which is designing high-altitude, solar-powered drones that can fly for weeks — or perhaps longer — at a time.

In trying to make sense of these activities, we need to separate out short-term panic from long-term strategy. Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp was the product of two things: naked fear and the ability to mint a particular form of Monopoly money known as Facebook shares. Users’ photographs are Facebook’s lifeblood, and Instagram’s meteoric growth suggested that it, rather than Facebook, might ultimately become the place where people shared their pictures. Much the same applies to WhatsApp: It was growing much faster than Facebook had at a comparable stage in its corporate development, and looked like eventually becoming a threat. As for the Oculus VR acquisition? Well, like the peace of God, it passeth all understanding.

Which leaves us with the strategic stuff. Here we see clear long-term thinking at work. The Google boys have decided that advanced robotics, machine-learning, distributed sensors and digital mapping are going to be the essential ingredients of a combinatorial future, and they are determined to be the dominant force in that.

As far as the high-altitude drones are concerned, Google and Facebook are on exactly the same wavelength. Since Internet access in the industrialized world is now effectively a done deal, all of the future growth is going to come from the remaining 5 billion people on the planet who do not yet have a proper Internet connection. Both companies have a vital interest in speeding up the process of getting those 5 billion souls online, for the simple reason that the more people who use the Internet the greater their revenues will be. And they see high-altitude drones as the means to that profitable end. They piously insist, of course, that this new connectivity will be good for humanity, and perhaps indeed it will. But ultimately profitability, like charity, begins at home.