Project Loon is using balloons such as this to set up an aerial wireless network for telecommunications.Credit: Loon The goal of an autonomous machine is to achieve an objective by making decisions while negotiating a dynamic environment. Given complete knowledge of a system's current state, artificial intelligence and machine learning can excel at this, and even outperform humans at certain tasks -- for example, when playing arcade and turn-based board games1. But beyond the idealized world of games, real-world deployment of automated machines is hampered by environments that can be noisy and chaotic, and which are not adequately observed. The difficulty of devising long-term strategies from incomplete data can also hinder the operation of independent AI agents in real-world challenges. Writing in Nature, Bellemare et al.2 describe a way forward by demonstrating that stratospheric balloons, guided by AI, can pursue a long-term strategy for positioning themselves about a location on the Equator, even when precise knowledge of buffeting winds is not known.
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.
It's been over six weeks since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, leaving millions without power or access to reliable communication. The hurricane damaged the above-ground fiber lines that connect towers to the main network, too. AT&T, for example, is using stop-gap measures like portable cell towers on trucks to help get the network back up, and says that 70 percent of the population there is now covered by their network. And then there are the balloons. Alphabet, Google's parent company and the tech giant responsible for the balloons, calls the endeavor an "experimental technology."
Google's parent Alphabet says its stratospheric balloons have now helped over 100,000 Puerto Ricans to connect to the internet. The firm is working with AT&T and T-Mobile to successfully deliver basic internet to remote areas of Puerto Rico where cellphone towers were knocked out by Hurricane Maria. Two of the search giant's'Project Loon' balloons are already over the country enabling texts, emails and basic web access. 'Project Loon' balloons are already over the country enabling texts, emails and basic web access to AT&T customers with handsets that use its 4G LTE network. Several more balloons are on their way from Nevada, and Google has been authorized by the Federal Communications Commission to send up to 30 balloons to serve the hard-hit area.Project Loon head Alastair Westgarth says in a blog post that the technology is still experimental, though it has been tested since last year in Peru following flooding there.