While the world is rapidly running towards a digital era, countless people don’t have the money to even buy a smartphone and if they somehow arrange the money, well, they don’t have network connectivity to make use of the whole wide world of the Internet.
So, how we fix this? Google’s parent company Alphabet has a potential solution – a huge balloon! Yes, alphabet’s “Loon” division is now using dozens of floating balloons to provide internet to rural areas around the world.
Earlier this year, it launched its first commerical service in Kenya. Alastair Westgarth, Loon’s CEO, said that 4G LTE service will be provided to people in rural parts of Kenya via a fleet of around 35 balloons, covering an area of around 50,000 square kilometers across Western and Central areas of the country, including it’s capital, Nairobi.
So, how does this balloon work?
According to their official website, a loon flight system consists of three main components:
The balloon keeps the system aloft;
The ‘bus’ contains all the hardware required for navigation and safe operations;
They payload that’s mounted on the bus is essentially a floating a cell tower, housing all the communications equipment required to connect users below.
These tennis court-sized balloons are powered by solar panels and hover at a height of roughly 20 km. To navigate around the globe, these use Artificial intelligence which contains set of algorithms bother written and exceuted by a deep reinforcement learning based flight control system.
The AI uses historical weather patterns and current reports to decide if the balloon should rise or drop its altitude to find the best wind to maintain it’s position. In the near future, it might also track animal migration and climate change, according to the report in the journal nature.
They stop up in the air for over 100 days before coming back down to earth, thus acting as a “floating network of cell towers,” providing internet to vast lands where service is not available. Instead of delivering connectivity from the ground through cell towers and cables, or from space via satellite, loon says it is building a “third layer” in the stratosphere.
The company’s balloons have already provided internet connectivity in disaster hit areas such as in Peru after an earthquake in 2019. This is the first time that they have launched the project as part of a large scale commerical deployment.