Grab your phone and follow the balloons.

The Alphabet (Google’s parent company) techies have launched Project Loon, an array of temporary, high-altitude balloons with transceivers that act as digital networks. They will make cell phones and the internet operational in remote, devastated areas of Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria – and Alphabet deserves a shout out. The hurricane wiped out much of Puerto Rico’s communications network – both wireless and broadband. Construction of new towers and rigging of new wires will be slow and priority will be given to population centers. People need communications now. I love seeing all that innovation focused on helping people.

Project Loon is Alphabet’s emergency cellular service. The FCC has approved this effort. Loon will launch as many as 30 large balloons (yes, solar-powered, high altitude balloons). Each will serve as a temporary cell phone tower capable of providing internet service to an area of almost 2,000 square miles. Puerto Rico is 3,515 square miles.

Loon was used in Peru in 2016 after severe floods.

Experimental now, Project Loon is designed to ultimately bring internet access to the more than half the world’s population which is without connectivity. The balloons are launched from the ground and drift up almost 12.5 miles in the stratosphere, well above commercial aircraft, on the edge of space. Balloons are eventually brought down in remote areas, recovered, re-positioned and launched again.

These are not your birthday party balloons. Each is the size of a tennis court. They must survive in 60+ mph winds, withstand exposure to strong UV rays, and function in temperatures more than 130 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) for more than 100 days for each flight.

The transceivers are like very lightweight cell towers, powered by solar panels.

Loon is still being developed. One challenge is keeping the balloons in place over the most important service areas. Loon engineers use predictive models and decision-making algorithms to move balloons into altitudes with favorable winds so that they drift into the optimal array.

When the flight is complete, the lift gas is released and the balloon parachutes back to earth for recovery and eventually a new launch.

So here is my shout out. I just love the idea of ‘old school’ balloons bringing access to new school technology and communications – especially filling a need in crisis. It feels good to be proud of engineering ingenuity and the spirit to help people in an emergency! Well done, Alphabet.

Note: Alphabet is the parent company of Google as well as the parent of X (X is a company run by Astro Teller). It does leading edge research and development for Alphabet.

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