This summer, the Google X lab launched a balloon into the stratosphere over Peru, and it stayed there for 98 days. Launching balloons into the stratosphere is a usual thing for the Google X lab--or just X, as it's now called after spinning off from Google and nestling under the new umbrella called Alphabet. X is home to Project Loon, an effort to beam the Internet from the stratosphere down to people here on Earth. The hope is that these balloons can fly over areas of the globe where the Internet is otherwise unavailable and stay there long enough to provide people with a reliable connection. But there's a problem: balloons tend to float away.
High-flying balloons are bringing broadband connectivity to remote nations and post-disaster zones where cell towers have been knocked out. These "super-pressure" helium-filled polyethylene bags float 65,000 feet up in the stratosphere, above commercial planes, hurricanes, and pretty much anything else. But keeping a fleet of tennis-court-sized, internet-blasting balloons hovering over one spot has been a tricky engineering problem, just like keeping a boat floating in one place on a fast-moving river. Now researchers at Google spinoff Loon have figured out how to use a form of artificial intelligence to allow the balloon's onboard controller to predict wind speed and direction at various heights, then use that information to raise and lower the balloon accordingly. The new AI-powered navigation system opens the possibility of using stationary balloons to monitor animal migrations, the effects of climate change, or illegal cross-border wildlife or human trafficking from a relatively inexpensive platform for months at a time.
X, formerly known as the Google X lab before spinning off into a new unit under parent Alphabet after a company restructuring, has tapped artificial intelligence to drive one of its most popular projects. Project Loon, which looks to launch balloons into the stratosphere to provide internet access to users on Earth, made a major breakthrough recently. One of its balloons was able to stay up in Peruvian airspace for 98 days, an impressive feat considering the difficulty to keep a balloon at a certain spot for a long period of time. The breakthrough was announced by the Project Loon team through its official Google page, where it stated that it was hard at work in the development of the navigation technology that its balloons will use. The latest updates were put to the test this summer on one of Project Loon's flights, launching the balloon from a site in Puerto Rico and then having it travel to Peru.
Alphabet's Loon, the team responsible for beaming internet down to Earth from stratospheric helium balloons, has achieved a new milestone: its navigation system is no longer run by human-designed software. Instead, the company's internet balloons are steered around the globe by an artificial intelligence -- in particular, a set of algorithms both written and executed by a deep reinforcement learning-based flight control system that is more efficient and adept than the older, human-made one. The system is now managing Loon's fleet of balloons over Kenya, where Loon launched its first commercial internet service in July after testing its fleet in a series of disaster relief initiatives and other test environments for much of the last decade. Similar to how researchers have achieved breakthrough AI advances in teaching computers to play sophisticated video games and helping software learn how to manipulate robotic hands in lifelike ways, reinforcement learning is a technique that allows software to teach itself skills through trial and error. Obviously, such repetition is not possible in the real world when dealing with high-altitude balloons that are costly to operate and even more costly to repair in the event they crash.
After the launch of Project loon, Google has been using static algorithms to make its internet balloons change altitude and stay in position for several years. Those hard coded algorithms were confined to adapt to unexpected weather patterns, which are pretty common in a place like the stratosphere. Well, those situations are history now. The Project Loon team has revealed that their engineering team is moving away from those hard coded control algorithm, instead, they are using machine learning to alter those internet balloon's behavior and make them stick to the desired flight path much longer. The company has already launched a test balloon into the stratosphere over Peru, which stayed there for 98 days, adapting to difficult wind conditions that might have sent it floating away.