Instead of sailing balloons around the world to deliver internet access, engineers at Alphabet's Project Loon will send small teams of balloons to form a cluster over specific regions where people need internet access—a discovery that will help reduce the costs of operating a Loon-powered network.
In a post on its Google+ page, the Loon team explained that when they started a pilot test in 2013, they thought they’d need a continuous stream of balloons around the world such that, as one balloon drifted away, another would be ready to take its place. Their main task would be to manage the balloons’ paths during their round-the-world journeys just enough to get them to drift over their internet test locations in roughly equal intervals—so as one balloon moved out of range, another would move in its place.
But in mid-2016, the team started sending balloons from a launch site in Puerto Rico to hang out in Peruvian airspace—and they did, some for as long as three months.
“We kept repeating the experiments and saw the same results: Rather than send streams of balloons around the world, we had figured out how to cluster balloons in teams over a particular region,” the team wrote. “Now that we can send small teams of balloons directly to areas that need connectivity, and get those balloons to spend more of their time in those areas, we believe we're years closer to our goal of bringing internet connectivity to unserved areas.”
Artificial intelligence software and machine learning are making the balloons “smarter,” according to Astro Teller, head of X projects, now under Alphabet, who appeared at a press event at X’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, on Thursday.
“The reason this is so exciting is we can now run an experiment and try to give services in particular places of the world with 10 or 20 or 30 balloons, not with 200 or 300 or 400 balloons,” he said, according to Recode.
“Although our navigation algorithms can get even better, and we need to test them in many other parts of the world, this is a positive sign for Loon’s economic and operational viability,” Teller wrote in a blog post. “We’ll be able to put together a Loon network over a particular region in weeks not months, and it would be a lot less work to launch and manage. We’ll reduce the number of balloons we need and get greater value out of each one.
“All of this helps reduce the costs of operating a Loon-powered network, which is good news for the telco partners we’ll work with around the world to make Loon a reality, and critical given that cost has been one key factor keeping reliable internet from people living in rural and remote regions,” he said.
The company has done deals in the past with the likes of Vodafone, Telefonica and Telstra, and while the way in which service will be delivered has changed, the goal of Project Loon has remained the same over the years: Beam internet service from balloons floating in the stratosphere down to the 4 billion or so people who don't currently have a good connection.
Of course, it’s not alone in its endeavor. Facebook has been working on its flying drone Aquila project to deliver internet to the unconnected, and companies like OneWeb and O3B are also working on satellite-oriented projects to do the same.