By nature, the ideas under exploration in the so-called Moonshot Factory at Alphabet (formerly Google) are long-term ventures, but one of the better-known projects may be here a little quicker than we thought. That's if a blog post by lab boss Astro Teller is anything to go by, which describes a big advance in the software that powers the ambitious Project Loon and allows the team to better direct their internet-beaming balloons to regions in need.
As crazy as using endurance aircraft to broadcast internet around the globe sounds, Project Loon isn't alone in pursuing this path to a better-connected world. Facebook with its solar-powered Aquila drones hopes to also bring developing regions online, with the aircraft soaring for 60 to 90 days at a time and using advanced laser communications to rain high-speed internet down on those below (though it did suffer a setback recently).
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The Project Loon balloons will also draw on power from the sun, forming a network of floating communication instruments 20 km (12.4 mi) above the Earth's surface. The balloons have already been tested in places such as New Zealand and Brazil, and Alphabet has partnered with Sri Lanka and Indonesia to one day deploy them over those countries.
The Moonshot Factory team had imagined doing this by creating rings of balloons that float around the globe (see above), with the endless line of inflatables bringing continuous coverage to the regions below. Such a network would certainly take a whole lot of balloons and cash to set in flight, but now the team seems to have happened upon a much more efficient way of doing its business.
It says through machine-learning, its navigational algorithms have advanced in a way that allows the balloons to be sent in clusters to a specific region (see above), where they circle in much smaller loops and use stratospheric winds to stay in the same area. This means a big reduction in the number of balloons needed to get the service up and running and keeps costs much lower than they otherwise would be.
Which means of course, that the deployment of Project Loon's balloons, albeit in smaller numbers, is much closer to reality. Though Teller doesn't put a date on when this might be, he does seem mighty optimistic about where they are heading.
Source: Project LoonView gallery - 4 images