Loon was started inside the company’s Google X lab in 2011 and has accompanied other high-flying efforts, such as one to fly solar-powered drones transmitting wireless Internet signals.
One drone crashed on May 1. At the time of Google’s early Loon trials in 2013, balloons stayed in skies over Queensland and Northern NSW for about five days, and Google could keep only a few up there at a time.
It also took more than a dozen employees to launch each balloon-not a system that could grow efficiently around the world in the way envisioned by Chief Executive Officer Larry Page and his co-founder and Google X chief, Sergey Brin.
At Google’s annual I/O developer conference this week, the company unveiled updates to its Android operating system, talked up new ways to turn smartphones into virtual reality headsets, and rebooted its attempt to break into digital payments with Android Pay, there was very little discussion on Project Loon.
Mike Cassidy, a vice president at Google and the project’s leader, told Bloomberg that the project was still on track.
He highlights two recent advancements that could help Project Loon finally reach commercial deployment as soon as next year.
First, Cassidy says Google has partially automated the balloon launching process with 50-foot-tall, cube-shaped units it calls the Autolauncher.
It’s also referred to, internally, as the Bird House, because various iterations of the balloons have been named after birds.
(Old models were dubbed the Falcon and Grackle; the current one is called NightHawk.) The metal and canvas contraptions block the wind, clamp the balloons into place, and provide a perch for the antenna payload, which prevents it from swinging as the balloons take off.
By using the Autolauncher, Cassidy says balloons can be launched into Australian skies with four people every 15 minutes and in winds of up to 15 miles per hour.
Before, they could do one balloon every 45 minutes and were limited to wind speeds of 6 miles per hour or less. “It lets us launch a lot more balloons a lot more reliably,” Cassidy says. That’s important, because Google will need hundreds in the air at one time to blanket a region with reliable Internet access.
Bloomberg said that the second advancement within Project Loon is an even bigger deal.
Until now, each balloon had to link directly with a telephone company’s ground stations up to 80 kilometres away to relay Internet signals.