Researchers involved with Google’s Project Loon have said that a recent breakthrough in research has led the company to being “years closer” to being able to realising the ultimate goal in its project by rolling out a series of balloons to provide internet connectivity to the more remote areas of the world.
Project Loon is governed by the company’s X Division research lab, which is technically under Google’s parent company Alphabet. The research team has said that the latest breakthrough now allows the company to use machine learning to predict weather systems. This means that Google would have a far greater control on where its balloons go, and enabling it to focus on a specific region as opposed to circumnavigating the entire globe.
As a result of this, Google will be able to cluster a small number of balloons which will reduce the cost of the project significantly.
The whole idea of the project is to provide internet connectivity to the estimated four billion people worldwide who still do not have access to the online world, with a specific emphasis on those rural and remote areas that are the most difficult to reach.
It came up with Loon as an alternative to undertaking huge construction initiatives on the ground to replicate the connectivity networks already established in the developed world. Loon would beam down connections from altitude from a network of huge balloons about the size of a tennis court.
The balloons would float in the stratosphere at heights of 11 miles and, by remotely controlling these altitudes by raising or lowering the balloons, they can be caught in different weather streams. This would, in turn, allow them to change direction and float towards another area of the world.
By using these machine-learning algorithms, the researchers believe they have discovered a way to predict weather patterns with enough accuracy to make it possible to hover a balloon over a smaller area for a longer period of time. In a test last year, the company was able to keep a cluster of prototype balloons hovering over Peru for a total of three months.
Earlier this year, Google decided to focus all of its attention on Project Loon after deciding to call it a day with its sister project, Titan, which had the same aim as Loon but with drones instead of balloons.
In terms of lowering costs, this news is huge for Google and Alphabet as they have been under increasing pressure from shareholders to keep the costs of their more ‘out-there’ ideas down. This was one of the factors taken in the decision to pull the plug on Project Titan.
Although this breakthrough takes years off the expected launch date of Loon, there are still a number of obstacles for the research team to overcome, one of which is keeping the balloons in the air. The current record for a continuous unmanned balloon flight is 190 days.