Sam the Dog has gone where no stuffed animal has gone before -- into the stratosphere and the English unknown. Teachers and pupils at an elementary school in Morecambe in northwest England strapped the white fluffy school mascot to a high-altitude helium balloon and launched him from a hotel roof Tuesday. They recorded his rapid ascent some 15 miles (24 kilometers) into the atmosphere, much higher than planned, and captured the trip with an on-board video camera. After the balloon burst, Sam disappeared. The school hoped to retrieve him, but he was missing from the site where the balloon's camera and GPS system landed some 30 miles (50 kilometers) to the east.
High above the annoyances of weather and commercial air traffic, the stratosphere could be a great place from which to beam down Internet connectivity to places with poor communications infrastructure. Alphabet and Facebook are both working on drones to operate 18 kilometers or more above Earth, and this year Alphabet will start using balloons at that altitude to serve mobile subscribers in Indonesia. But even the stratosphere, which at the equator starts at around 20 kilometers but varies by latitude and season, is within reach of Earth's regulators. To work at large scale, Alphabet and Facebook's schemes will need significant changes to national and international rules. "This is all somewhat uncharted territory," says Yael Maguire, engineering director at Facebook's connectivity lab, which is working on a drone called Aquila that has the wingspan of an airliner (see "Meet Facebook's Stratospheric Internet Drone").
In the hope of bringing internet access to even the most remote corners of the globe, Google parent Alphabet's'Loon' project has taken a big step closer. Alphabet said artificial intelligence-infused navigation software has significantly sped up plans, helping to smartly guide high-altitude balloons to improve coverage. While the firm has not said when it expects the balloons to be up and running, Astro Teller, head of the team at Alphabet unit X said: 'We are looking to move quickly, but to move thoughtfully.' Alphabet said artificial intelligence-infused navigation software has significantly sped up plans, helping to smartly guide high-altitude balloons to improve coverage. Teller said: 'Our timelines are starting to move up on how we can do more for the world sooner.'
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."
For most people, balloons may connote birthday parties, weddings, parades, or on a less celebratory note, meteorology. But, if one new startup has its way, sweeping surveillance may soon make that list too. World View Enterprises Inc., based in Arizona, is working to build what it's calling Stratollites -- balloon mounted-surveillance systems that the company claims can be remotely controlled and adjusted using its own proprietary technology. In an test of unprecedented length, a World View balloon safely completed a 16-day mission, navigating above states in the Western U.S. The feat, says the company, is a major mile marker in the goal of keeping the devices afloat for months at a time. Balloons could be the new method of surveillance according to one Arizona startup, World View.