Three men in sunglasses and slippers scoot around a tennis court-sized sheet of plastic, marking it up and down with blue Sharpies. After coming down from the stratosphere, where it traveled at high speeds and low temperatures, a balloon is undergoing a forensic process.
Could what looks like a giant plastic trashbag be the future of global internet connectivity?
X, the moonshot factory of Google’s parent company Alphabet, certainly sees it as part of the solution, especially after announcing yesterday that they are one step closer to delivering on the promise of balloon-powered internet access.
“Our timelines are starting to move up in how we can do more for the world sooner,” said Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots at X, after rollerblading into place for his presentation at the experimental lab on the Google campus in Mountain View, California.
Project Loon, which aims to use high altitude, wind-propelled balloons to deliver internet connectivity to rural and remote populations, announced a shift in approach on Thursday. Improvements in three key technologies — a more efficient altitude control system, simulations of the stratosphere, and a flight controller powered by machine learning — have led to major improvements in navigation. This will allow Project Loon to send smaller groups of balloons to form clusters over concentrated areas rather than having massive fleets of balloons take turns as they move around the world.
As the internet becomes more essential to daily life, the economic consequences of the digital divide between rich and poor will only grow worse for the more than half of the world’s population that have never been online. A diverse set of groups, from technology companies to donor agencies, are drawn to this goal of universal internet access, with the Sustainable Development Goals being one of several agendas aiming for universal and affordable access to the internet by 2020. Loon, like Facebook’s Aquila drone, is still in pilot stages, but X says it is now years closer to its goals as it continues to test with telecoms partners around the world.
Christopher Schuster, manager of the Project Loon Lab, stood by a giant wooden box as he described the testing that balloons go through before they are shipped off in a MOAC, or “Mother of All Crates.”
He gave a small group of reporters the lay of the land, pointing to the electrical engineering lab, the mechanical engineering lab, and the radio frequency engineering lab.
No pictures were allowed behind those doors, but his hot pink suit and matching shoes were as hard to forget as the prototypes around him.
He talked about how his background as a division officer in the U.S. Navy serves him well in his role taking responsibility for the assembling of every iteration of equipment that is carried on Project Loon balloons.
Project Loon has found that military veterans make great hires — not only because their skills lend themselves to launching and recovering balloons, but also because they understand what it means to be a part of something bigger than themselves, said Nick Kohli, who heads the team responsible for recovery of balloons, and is better known as the “Global Balloon Concierge” at X.
Before Project Loon was public, Kohli was working on secret launches and recoveries in the Nevada desert, drawing on his background in humanitarian work, disaster relief and international medical aid.
“We never thought balloons needed to be so tough,” said Pamela Desrochers, who heads the Project Loon Balloon Forensic Lab.
A steel gantry with four camera lenses moved slowly down a deflated balloon, capturing signs of stress on the plastic, and uploading thousands of images to be analyzed by other members of the team. This long flatbed scanner is named Billie Jean, after the Michael Jackson song, Desrochers told reporters. When you first enter the room, what catches your eye is the long strip of glowing white light reminiscent of a fashion runway, until you see the three men in shark slippers and dark sunglasses.
Desrochers is no stranger to fashion runways, having worked in the fashion industry before joining X. Now, she’s applying her knowledge as a seamstress and sample maker to developing new ways to make balloons resilient in the harsh extremes of the stratosphere.
Last year, communications industry veteran and satellite company executive Tom Moore took over at Project Loon, which some saw as a sign that the company was moving closer toward commercial viability.
The invitation to Thursday’s special event — Into the Lab with X’s Project Loon — promised a behind-the-scenes look at the “messy realities of innovation,” linking to a recent piece by Teller about how the secret to moonshots is killing projects.
“The moonshot factory is a messy place,” he wrote. “But rather than avoid the mess or pretend it’s not there, we’ve tried to make it our strength. We spend most of our time breaking things and working to discover that we’re wrong. That’s it. That’s the secret.”
Eventually, the goal is to turn X projects from science experiments into commercial products. With this most recent development, the Project Loon team will be able to mobilize a network of balloons over a region in weeks versus months, requiring fewer balloons overall, meaning lower costs for the goal of balloon-powered internet connectivity, addressing a huge barrier to internet access.
Recently, X ended its Project Titan project, which was exploring high altitude drones for internet access, in favor of Project Loon. It remains to be seen whether internet via balloons will get to the stage of X’s self driving car unit, which recently spun off into a new company under the Alphabet umbrella.
“The whole global connectivity problem, definitely not solved. Loon, definitely not solved either. But we think this is a good page in our playbook now,” said Sal Candido, lead engineer for the team that handles the software, planning, simulation. “So we’re going to keep flying. We’re going to keep getting more data. We’re going to keep testing and improving things.”
Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.
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