Puerto Rico is in trouble. Approximately 3 million of its residents are still without electricity after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria, and 30% lack access to drinkable water. Exacerbating the process of recovery is the fact that communication infrastructure in general, and the internet specifically, is experiencing trouble across the U.S. territory.
When Google first introduced Project Loon, its internet balloons used static algorithms to change altitude and stay in position. While clever, they were limited -- Google couldn't do much to adapt to unexpected weather patterns, which are quite common tens of thousands of feet in the air. The Project Loon team has revealed that it's using artificial intelligence technology (specifically, machine learning) to alter balloons' behavior and keep them in position for much longer. One test balloon stayed in the Peruvian stratosphere for 98 days, adapting to tricky wind conditions that might have sent it drifting away. As Wired notes, the algorithms now comb over large amounts of data and learn from it.
This month, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission approved Alphabet's application to provide emergency cellular service to Puerto Rico using up to 30 balloons. The company said Friday it does not expect to use that many since each balloon can provide internet service to an area of roughly 5,000 square kilometers, or 1,930 square miles.
Alphabet's Project Loon is running into some figurative turbulence in addition to the literal kind. Tom Moore, the satellite executive who was brought on as CEO to help Project Loon become a full-fledged business, has left the leadership position after just 6 months. It's not clear why he's on the way out (neither he nor Alphabet are commenting), but he's being replaced by Alastair Westgarth, a wireless industry veteran best known for turning startups into viable companies. His "vision" for the internet balloon project matches the strategy of Alphabet's X division, "approaching huge programs, at scale, to improve the lives of millions or billions of people," the company says.