Alphabet’s Project Loon partners with AT&T to restore and boost web infrastructure on hurricane-hit island.
Citizens of Puerto Rico have had an unexpected boost to their mobile data services after high-tech communications balloons provided by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have started flying above the disaster-struck island.
For many in Puerto Rico, the communications aid can’t come fast enough. The majority of Puerto Rico’s cellphone towers were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Maria, which bit the island last month. According to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the storm knocked out, or destroyed, some 95%.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, less than a third of the island’s power grid is still operational, delaying further the restoration of island’s infrastructure.
The lack of communications has caused the government of Puerto Rico substantial headaches. Without mobile communications, sending relief or providing emergency has proven to almost impossible to provide.
Enter Project Loon
Developed by X, the former branch of Google that became part of Alphabet. The idea is about using high flying balloons that function like mobile cell towers. “Working with AT&T, Project Loon is now supporting basic communication and internet activities like sending text messages and accessing information online for some people with LTE enabled phones,” said Alastair Westgarth, head of Project Loon.
“This is the first time we have used our new machine learning-powered algorithms to keep balloons clustered over Puerto Rico, so we’re still learning how best to do this… As we get more familiar with the constantly shifting winds in this region, we hope to keep the balloons over areas where connectivity is needed for as long as possible.”
The Loon balloons have experienced other teething issues as well. Project Loon was originally intended to provide basic internet access over large areas to those parts of the world where telecommunications were inadequate or non-existent.
Up, up and away
Loon balloons operate in the stratosphere and maintain their location by rising and falling to altitudes where the winds are going in the proper direction. Each Loon platform carries solar powered radios and control equipment, along with batteries to keep the platform powered at night. Each Loon platform is designed to stay airborne for about six months, after which it makes a controlled descent where the electronics and control package can be picked up for reuse or recycling.
If Project Loon proves to a be a success after what has so far been a very promising start, it has been rumoured that Alphabet will start on a disaster-relief version later this year.