When Hurricanes Maria and Irma tore through Puerto Rico last month, Alphabet's X lab was quick to answer the call, gaining approval to launch its Project Loon balloons over the storm-ravaged island to provide residents with emergency internet service. Following a successful launch, the balloons have now been switched on and are already providing hard hit parts of the population with connectivity.
Project Loon is a bold plan cooked up in Google's secretive research X lab and revealed to the world in 2013. The solar-powered balloons carry communications equipment and form networks in the stratosphere, beaming internet connectivity to people on the ground below.
Now under the control of Google's parent company Alphabet, the venture has made some real progress in the last few years. The team has put them to the test in New Zealand and Brazil, and has also signed agreements with Sri Lanka and Indonesia to deploy them in those countries, too.
But Puerto Rico presented a new challenge for Project Loon's balloons. As project head Alastair Westgarth notes in a blog post, the team has never deployed a fleet of Project Balloons from scratch in such little time. It launched small fleets of balloons from its base in Nevada, which floated on down to Puerto Rico some 3,000 miles away (4,800 km).
Project Loon is working with AT&T on the initiative, and it says with its help the hardest hit parts of the island are now being provided with emergency internet service. This amounts to activities like sending text messages and accessing basic information, like status reports on the availability of basic goods and services, for people with LTE-enabled phones.
This is also the first time Project Loon is testing out its new machine learning software, which relies on navigational algorithms to send clusters of balloons to areas in need where they surf stratospheric winds to hold their position. This is hoped to reduce the number of balloons needed to get the service up and running and make things cheaper overall.
The team notes that the Project Loon balloons are still very much an experimental technology and in a way, it is learning as it goes. As it gets a better handle on the changing winds over Puerto Rico, it is hopeful of keeping its balloons afloat for as long as they are needed.
Source: Project Loon