Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is hoping its high-flying internet balloons can help the people of Puerto Rico, about a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall.
On Friday, the search giant announced some balloons from its Project Loon program had been deployed over Puerto Rico, in an effort to provide people with limited internet access. That will allow for basic activities like sending texts or accessing information online for some people with LTE-enabled phones.
To deploy the balloons, Alphabet partnered with AT&T. Alphabet also worked with the government of Puerto Rico, and the United States government’s Federal Communications Commission, Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Loon was developed at X, formerly called Google X. The lab is responsible for the search giant’s most audacious projects, or “moonshots,” including self-driving cars and smart contact lenses with glucose readers for diabetics. The idea behind Loon, started in 2013, is to fly balloons in the stratosphere above rural areas and beam down wireless signals to those populations, essentially like floating cellular towers.
This is the second time Loon has been tested during a disaster relief effort. Last year, Alphabet sent balloons to flood zones in Peru. Last month, the FCC approved the Loon application to provide emergency cellular service to Puerto Rico.
On Friday, however, Alphabet was quick to stress that Loon is still new and unpredictable.
“Project Loon is still an experimental technology and we’re not quite sure how well it will work,” Alistair Westgarth, head of Project Loon, wrote in a blog post. “But we hope it helps get people the information and communication they need to get through this unimaginably difficult time.”
One of the challenges is becoming more familiar with the shifting winds in the region, Westgarth said.
Alphabet said it will keep the balloons flying over the island “as long as it is useful and we’re able to do so.”
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