Project Loon, Google's off-the-wall plan to use balloons to beam internet to parts of the world with no connectivity, has moved a step closer to reality.
First announced in 2013 by Google's secretive X lab, Project Loon is the company's attempt to bridge the "digital divide" between those who have access the to internet and those that don't.
It involves transmitting high-speed internet signals from clusters of helium-filled balloons floating 60,000 feet above the Earth.
Google's original plan was to create rings of balloons sailing around the globe, with individual balloons handing off service to each other as they pass through a region.
However, Google X now claims to have worked out how to keep clusters of balloons over a single location for extended periods of time - something that could make the project much more economically viable.
The technique involves using algorithms to continuously adjust the air pressure inside the balloons to make them heavier or lighter, in response to shifting wind patterns.
At first, the technique was used to manoeuvre the balloons into the path of certain air currents, allowing Google's engineers to guide their paths around the globe.
Over time, the algorithms improved to the point where the team could sail a balloon over a specific location - ?an important step towards providing a reliable internet connection to people on the ground.
Eventually, they could chart the flight path of balloons around oceans or continents, and set them back on track if they drifted off course.
However, until recently, the team never imagined it would be possible to keep the balloons in place over a single location.
"By early 2016, the team was seeing a few balloons behave in a slightly weird way: lingering in an area rather than sailing away," wrote Astro Teller, head of the X labs, in a blog post.
"In the weirdness, they saw opportunity. They asked themselves the once-impossible question: could our algorithms help the balloons to stay much closer to the location they were already in?
"In mid 2016, we started sending balloons from our launch site in Puerto Rico to hang out in Peruvian airspace? - ?and they did, some for as long as three months.
"We repeated the experiments, and saw the same results: we had figured out how to cluster balloons in teams, dancing in small loops on the stratospheric winds, over a particular region."
Teller described the discovery as a "magical, serendipitous experience," in which the company's software algorithms exceeded even its own expectations.
The project's focus has now shifted from creating rings of balloons sailing around the globe, to setting up clusters of balloons over specific regions where people need internet access.
Teller said this was a positive sign for Project Loon's economic and operational viability - meaning balloon-powered internet could soon become a reality for people in rural and remote regions of the globe.
"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. We'll reduce the number of balloons we need and get greater value out of each one," he said.
"All of this helps reduce the costs of operating a Loon-powered network, which is good news for the telco partners we’ll work with around the world to make Loon a reality, and critical given that cost has been one key factor keeping reliable internet from people living in rural and remote regions."
The next step will be to set up a network with real-life users in trials - something that Google says that will come "very soon".
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