Alphabet won't need all those internet balloons after all

Bringing Google to the world just got simpler.

REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Since it launched nearly four years ago, Alphabet's Project Loon experiment has shifted from an unlikely moonshot to an idea that might actually work. As Alphabet's experimental X division chief and "Captain of Moonshots" Astro Teller wrote today, the project team has "now exceeded even their own expectations," in the attempts to build a network of self-navigating, internet-beaming balloons. "And in the process they've leapt much closer to a day when balloon-powered Internet could become a reality for people in rural and remote regions of the globe."

Back in September, the project's engineers showed how the system learned to ride air currents and stay in place over one area for months at a time. "The reason this is so exciting," Teller elaborated during a press conference at X's Mountain View headquarters, "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."

Teller says his team has improved the navigation and altitude control systems to allow for even more precise control, but the AI behind it can get even smarter. It will also need to be tested in other parts of the world to learn how to handle varying conditions, but the implications for the project are very promising. Fewer balloons means operating costs are drastically reduced and service could be deployed to a new region in weeks rather than months -- a huge advantage considering these are meant to deliver internet to remote regions of the world.

"We've actually made so much progress," Project Loon engineer Sal Candido said at today's press conference, "that we think our timeline for when we can provide useful internet service to people is much, much sooner."