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Google's Project Loon Goes Local

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF.—Google researchers working on Project Loon, a global airborne-broadband experiment discovered their balloons will not have to circle the earth to fulfill their goal of providing internet connectivity to under- and non-served areas. More accurate remote navigation systems means fewer balloons in the atmosphere.

“During our first pilot test in 2013, launching dozens of balloons from New Zealand to see if they’d circumnavigate the globe, we knew we had a lot to learn about how to use algorithms to move our balloons up and down and guide their paths through the sky,” researchers said on the Project Loon Google+ page. “We thought we’d need a continuous stream of balloons around the world such that, as one balloon drifted away, another would be ready to take its place. We figured our main task would be to manage the balloons’ paths during their round the world journeys just enough to get them to drift over our Internet test locations in roughly equal intervals — so as one balloon moved out of range, another would move into place.

The more researchers flew the balloons, they realized their algorithms could help navigate the balloons to take advantage of wind patterns, sort of the way birds and gliders ride updrafts.

“In mid-2016, we started sending balloons from our launch site in Puerto Rico to hang out in Peruvian airspace — and they did, some for as long as three months. We kept repeating the experiments and saw the same results: rather than send streams of balloons around the world, we had figured out how to cluster balloons in teams over a particular region.”

Now a small balloon fleet can be deployed to specific areas in need of connectivity. Project lead, Mike Cassidy, spoke about the complexity of deploying a global balloon network and managing it, and the progress that's been made in the four years since Project Loon was launched. Cassidy said LTE is employed for wireless broadband provision, in cooperation with the local phone company serving a given area. 

TV Technology contributor Doug Lung first reported on Project Loon here in 2013.