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A breakthrough in Alphabet’s balloon-based internet project means it might actually work

The Loon project says these advancements shorten their timeline for deployment.


Loon, the balloon project that aims to deliver internet to parts of the world that lack reliable connectivity, announced today that due to advancements in the machine learning software, it can now deploy fewer balloons to provide greater connectivity.

The Loon balloon project is part of X, the experimental division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Now in its fourth year, the engineers at Loon say their new machine learning techniques significantly shorten their timeline for launching the project.

Initially, engineers proposed that the Loon balloons would float around the globe and that they would have to find a way to keep the balloons a safe traveling distance apart and replace a balloon that drifted from an area that needed connectivity.

Now, the team says they’ve found a way to keep the balloons in a much more concentrated location, thanks to their improved altitude control and navigation system. Loon says that balloons will now make small loops over a land mass, instead of circumnavigating the whole planet.

“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,” said the head of X, Astro Teller, at a press event at X’s headquarters in Mountain View today.

The Loon balloons now also adjust how they fly as needed using artificial intelligence software, instead of a set navigation plan.

“We’ve actually made so much progress that we think our timeline for when we can provide useful internet service to people is much, much sooner,” said Sal Candido, an engineer on the Loon project.

Alphabet has been investing in Loon to make it work, but whether the balloons will be cheaper than building infrastructure in remote areas that lack connectivity remains to be seen. Internet providers generally won’t lay cables in places where there aren’t enough potential subscribers to make it profitable, which is one reason a lot of the world is still offline.

The bulk of Loon’s testing has been in South America, according to Teller. Loon shared the story of its 98-day flight over Peru last September. And that same month, Loon balloons were spotted drifting over Yellowstone National Park.

Watch a video about Loon’s improved navigation techniques.

Correction: This article previously stated that Alphabet has been spending more than $1 billion on Loon. That figure, from a 2014 WSJ article, referred to Google’s spending plans for a satellite-based internet project.

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