Launched in 2012 as part of Google X, Project Loon – previously dismissed as, well, a rather ‘loony’ idea – aims to use high-altitude, solar-powered helium balloons to provide net connectivity to the world’s most remote areas that have no land-based cell towers, or in cases of natural disaster.
To test the viability of the concept, the Loon team partnered up with carrier Telefonica during a flooding in Peru earlier this year and managed to provide net access to hundreds of thousands of people spread across an area the size of Switzerland by deploying several dozen individual balloons, which stay in the air for hundreds of days on end.
The balloons stay more or less in the same place by changing altitude to adjust themselves via differing wind directions at different altitudes, all processed by software operating on the basis of climate modelling data provided by North American and European agencies.
The project is set to work in collaboration with already established providers of network connection rather than compete with them head-to-head. To that end, Google is already talking with a number of mobile network operators around the world, with specific details to come out in the near future.
According to Alastair Westgarth, Head of the Project Loon, while helping out is important, the chief aim of the project is profitability.
“We exist to build a durable business model, and underneath that if we can help people and on occasion provide relief during a strenuous situation, a disaster situation, that’s great,” said Westgarth. “But we believe in the next couple of years we will be flying and providing service in a commercial context in partnership with the operators.”
In the future, Project Loon is also set to make use of Google’s AI research to help control the balloons while they’re airborne.
The project is scheduled to enter the market by 2019, at which point it will be interesting to see it compete with other similar platforms, such as Facebook’s Aquila, which provides access to the Internet by utilising unmanned airplanes.