Google Internet balloons retain position in sky with help of air-flow algorithm

An algorithm capable of keeping Google’s Internet-beaming balloons in one place for longer has raised hopes among engineers behind the once unrealistic venture that the technology could find practical use.

In a blog post on the website of Google’s secretive X research division, the director of the Astro Teller project admits that Google Loon, the official name of the balloon Internet project, once appeared to be sheer lunacy.

However, over the years, engineers managed to develop better and better algorithms, enabling the balloons to better ride the stratospheric winds and provide coverage exactly where needed.

A major breakthrough arrived in late 2016 during an experiment in South America when the engineers observed for the first time that their balloons could actually hang over a certain spot on the ground for up to three months rather then being carried away by the wind.

“Project Loon’s algorithms can now send small teams of balloons to form a cluster over a specific region where people need Internet access,” Teller wrote in the blog post. “This is a shift from our original model for Loon in which we planned to create rings of balloons sailing around the globe, and balloons would take turns moving through a region to provide service.”

Teller said the algorithm, which enables the balloons to take advantage of air flows and essentially move in loops over a certain spot, will speed up deployment of the balloon-carried Internet network and reduce the costs that will be a major consideration for possible future investors.

“We’ll be able to put together a Loon network over a particular region in weeks not months, and it would be a lot less work to launch and manage,” Teller wrote.

“We’ll reduce the number of balloons we need and get greater value out of each one.”

The X lab has been developing the Loon idea since 2011. The main assumption is that helium-filled balloons sailing on stratospheric winds could act as floating mobile-phone towers, bringing Internet access to the least accessible regions of the Earth where erecting ground infrastructure would be too costly.

Smart algorithms allow the engineers to modify the balloons' altitude to catch the most favourable winds.

In 2013, the team launched a first experimental fleet in New Zealand. At that point, the engineers didn’t expect it to be possible to keep the balloons in one place and their only aspiration was to manage their trajectories to keep them an equal distance from each other. By 2014, the algorithms were good enough to allow a balloon to circumnavigate the world and land within tens of kilometres from a pre-defined location.

Eventually, the balloons were able to jump from one wind stream to another so accurately that they would move in loops. At first the loops were large, covering whole continents or oceans. But eventually the team managed to tighten them so that the balloons would revisit the same location every few days and were eventually able to hover over one place.

Project Loon is Google’s endeavour to provide Internet access to the world’s unconnected regions. Rival Facebook is developing its own solution to the problem in the form of a network of solar-powered drones.

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