Alphabet perseveres through complex technological and practical problems to set new records.
Alphabet’s High Altitude Loon Balloon system set a new milestone last month by linking 7 balloons together that were flying 600 km apart, and casting the Internet in a 1000 km diameter, and all from just one ground up-link connection point.
It may not seem like news, but for context, back in 2014 when the project still came under the mantle of being a Google Project, a single Loon balloon was only capable of beaming the internet to an area 40 kilometers in diameter.
To put that even further into context, at one point just trying to maintain a single constant signal between two balloons 100 km was an achievement.
The “accuracy is equivalent to throwing a ball 100 meters and landing it in a wastebasket. In this case, however, the wastebasket was in constant motion in the stratosphere,” said Loon head of engineering Salvatore Candido said in a blog post.
“Over time we’ve experimented with a number of ways of getting balloons to talk to one another,” Candido continued. “At one point we sent the movie Real Genius between two balloons 100km apart using free space optics. (That technology is proving useful on the ground.) We’ve kept trying new methods, and just last month we hit an exciting milestone. Rather than making a connection 100km between two balloons, we went 10 times farther across seven balloons.”
What is Loon?
A main aim of the Loon Project is to enable internet access to remote and currently under-served areas of the world.
According to Loon, there are around a billion people living on Earth who have no, or extremely limited access to the Internet.
The main problem with connecting these people is the fact that most of them live in poorer countries and lack the infrastructure to overcome geographical constraints such as mountain-ranges, or the financial ability to lay pipelines across thousands of miles of wilderness.
Alphabet is not the only company that has attempted to create a high-altitude internet network, but it is one of the few that has persevered through the complex technological and practical problems inherent in such an undertaking.
How does it work?
Loon has solved many of the connectivity issues it has faced by using custom built antennas mounted to the bottom of the Loon balloons and using Artificial Intelligence led machine learning techniques for its navigation algorithms to maintain connections between clusters of balloons.
Made from sheets of polyethylene, each tennis court-sized balloon is built to last for well over 100 days before landing back on Earth in a controlled descent.
Part of the challenge in using high altitude balloons is that they are at the mercy of upper atmosphere winds and air currents. To counter this effect, Alphabet are using clusters of balloons to deploy internet faster and cover a larger region.
“With billions of people lacking connectivity there’s a lot of ground to cover,” the Loon blog post concludes.
Loon is set to launch as a commercial service in 2019.