Loon Balloon

An Alphabet Loon Balloon gets ready to fly to Puerto Rico from Nevada launch site.

Balloons launched by Google parent company Alphabet could restore connectivity to people in the hurricane-ravaged U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Much of the island has been without power, water or connectivity for weeks, since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico. But Alphabet’s X Company is looking to do something about at least part of that problem. Alastair Westgarth, head of the company’s Project Loon, writes in a blog post:

Last month, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane and caused significant damage to the island’s connectivity infrastructure. In the weeks following this disaster, the Project Loon team has been working with the Government of Puerto Rico, the FCC, the FAAFEMA, spectrum partners and international aviation authorities to bring balloon powered internet to the island to help. Thanks to their support, we are now collaborating with AT&T to deliver emergency internet service to the hardest hit parts of the island.

Working with AT&T, Project Loon is now supporting basic communication and internet activities like sending text messages and accessing information online for some people with LTE enabled phones. This is the first time we have used our new machine learning powered algorithms to keep balloons clustered over Puerto Rico, so we’re still learning how best to do this. As we get more familiar with the constantly shifting winds in this region, we hope to keep the balloons over areas where connectivity is needed for as long as possible.

Google launched Project Loon in 2013 as a network of balloons traveling at the edge of space and design to bring Internet connectivity to people in remote areas.

The company has also designed the balloons to help restore communications in disaster-struck areas. But it’s never had to do so with the speed of Alphabet’s response to the Puerto Rico disaster. Here’s Westgarth:

We’ve never deployed Project Loon connectivity from scratch at such a rapid pace, and we’re grateful for the support of AT&T and the many other partners and organizations that have made this possible. Thanks to the Pan-American and Puerto Rican governments’ aviation authorities and air traffic controllers, who enabled us to send small teams of balloons from our launch site in Nevada to Puerto Rico. Thanks also to SES Networks and Liberty Cablevisionwho helped quickly set up essential ground infrastructure so that the balloons could get internet connectivity.

We plan to continue to offer emergency internet connectivity in areas where it’s needed for as long as it is useful and we’re able to do so. Project Loon is still an experimental technology and we’re not quite sure how well it will work, but we hope it helps get people the information and communication they need to get through this unimaginably difficult time.

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