Google’s plan to deliver internet via balloons nears reality

17 Feb 2017

Hot air balloons, not the kind that Project Loon will use, but still pretty. Image: muratart/Shutterstock

Project Loon, Google X’s plan to deliver internet across the globe via hundreds of drone balloons, is nearing a reality.

The race to deliver internet access to every crevice of the planet has so far seen Samsung, Facebook, OneWeb (led by Richard Branson), SpaceX and Google – of parent company Alphabet – plan various approaches.

There are drones, satellites, planes and balloons being backed by large teams and even larger finances, though it seems the latter approach is the one nearest to success.

The latest news from X – an experimental department of Alphabet, founded by Google in 2010 – is an overhaul of how the balloons will work, bringing their full release close to reality.

It was previously expected that hundreds of balloons would circumnavigate the globe, beaming internet down to areas below. The major obstacle in this regard was keeping them from crashing into each other, or something else.

Now, though, X has decided to alter that. Using new machine learning techniques, the balloons will instead make smaller loops over land masses.

Project Loon

“The reason this is so exciting is we can now run an experiment and try to give services in particular places of the world with 10 or 20 or 30 balloons, not with 200 or 300 or 400 balloons,” said the head of X, Astro Teller.

The company claims AI advances mean that set navigation plans are redundant; instead, the balloons can work it all out on the fly, so to speak.

This has enormous implications for the project, from a financial and operational standpoint, with a timeline of weeks, rather than months, needed to deliver what X wants to deliver.

“Overall, this means a [100-fold] reduction in the total number of balloons we’d need, which has huge implications for the costs of operating a Loon-powered network.,” said the company.

A few months ago it emerged that project Titan, the drone project Alphabet was hedging its bets with, was shelved.

“At this stage, the economics and technical feasibility of Project Loon present a much more promising way to connect rural and remote parts of the world,” said an X spokesperson at the time.

“Many people from the Titan team are now using their expertise as part of other high-flying projects at X, including Loon and Project Wing.”

The reorganisation of the Titan team appears to have worked.


Alphabet has other interests, too. It owns a stake in SpaceX, which is looking to use a series of small, low-cost satellites to achieve the same thing.

Samsung is looking to get in on the action, with 4,600 low-orbit satellites thought to be the way forward for the South Korean company. Richard Branson is backing OneWeb’s project, which is quite similar to Samsung’s plans.

Back on the drone planes side of things, Facebook, which tried buying Titan before Google, is working on its own version. It successfully tested out a variation in the UK last year.

Called the Aquila project, Facebook’s 130ft-long aircraft will, should it work, circle in the upper atmosphere, using lasers to broadcast data down to base stations on the ground.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic