Google accused of stealing idea for Project Loon

A company that years ago was talking about using balloons to provide wireless coverage in rural areas of the U.S. is now suing Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) for alleged patent violations.

Space Data's complaint includes
this photo of Sergey Brin at a
2008 Space Data balloon launch.

Space Data filed suit in the U.S. District Court in San Jose, California, accusing Google and parent Alphabet of improperly using Space Data's confidential information and trade secrets as part of Project Loon. The complaint involves Space Data patents titled "Airborne constellation of communications platforms and method" and "Unmanned lighter-than-air safe termination and recovery methods."

Arizona-based Space Data developed a system that uses inexpensive weather balloons to carry radio transceivers to altitudes between 60,000 and 100,000 feet. The company is licensed by the FCC to provide narrowband PCS nationwide and has broadband spectrum licenses in remote and rural areas, including Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico.

The company, which talked about using balloons at least as far back as 2002, started offering commercial wireless services in 2004 from a constellation of altitude-controlled balloons that drift in the stratosphere. Since then, it has extended the technology to serve the U.S. Armed Services with deployments in four continents. It's currently testing a broadband 4G version of its SkySite platform in partnership with a major wireless infrastructure vendor, which it doesn't name.

According to the complaint, Space Data and Google executed a non-disclosure agreement around December 4, 2007, shortly after which Space Data provided Google with access to Space Data's confidential and trade secret information. In February 2008, 11-13 members of Google flew via its corporate jet to Mesa Gateway Airport to visit Space Data's facilities for an entire day; Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were among them.

Space Data alleges that shortly after that meeting, a member of the Google team who had visited Space Data's facilities sent Space Data an e-mail stating that Google would not engage in further discussions with Space Data "in the near term," ostensibly because Space Data had talked to The Wall Street Journal about its business.

The complaint cites a March 21, 2014, TED interview with Charlie Rose regarding Project Loon, where Page claimed that Google had been thinking of the idea of launching balloons for "five years or more. During the course of the interview, Mr. Rose asked 'But are you at the mercy of the wind?' to which Mr. Page responded: 'Yeah, but it turns out, that we did some weather simulations which probably hadn't really been done before, and if you control the altitude of the balloons, which you can do by pumping air into them or other ways, you can actually control roughly where they go, and so we think we can build a worldwide mesh of these balloons over the whole planet,'" the complaint states.

Space Data says that by the time Page and others had visited Space Data, it already had conducted over 15,000 flights and accrued more than 100,000 flight hours to understand the wind patterns. "This concept of 'if you control the altitude you can actually control roughly where they go' was something Space Data demonstrated in February to Larry Page personally with over a dozen balloons in the sky which were actively flying at Space Data's network control center," the complaint says.

A Space Data representative declined to comment, including about why the suit was filed now. Google did not respond to FierceWirelessTech's request for comment but reached by The Verge, declined to comment.

As Tech Times points out, Google has its own patent for its Loon balloons titled "Terrestrial unit for connectivity to a balloon network." The company has made remarkable progress in its development of Loon, which got its name for what once sounded like a crazy idea.

For more:
- see the suit (pdf)
- see this Verge article
- see this Tech Times article

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