How a machine-learning ‘breakthrough’ may accelerate Alphabet’s Loon project

184553_422128817894627_1604601440_nA machine-learning ‘breakthrough’on Alphabet’s Loon project to connect the unconnected in the world’s underdeveloped and remote areas could accelerate progress on global Internet connectivity.

Project Loon has “now exceeded even their own expectations for how well their smart software algorithms can help their balloons navigate the globe, and in the process they’ve leapt much closer to a day when balloon-powered Internet could become a reality for people in rural and remote regions of the globe,” wrote Astro Teller, the head of X, Alphabet’s self-described ‘moonshot factory’ that houses Project Loon and has produced such innovations as Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car project.

Project Loon is a network of free-flying, high-altitude balloons that beam Internet to earth. And the machine-learning breakthrough announced yesterday comes at an important time, because the project has struggled with several issues that have brought its viability into question, including renegade balloons that floated off-course or crashed.

“Although our navigation algorithms can get even better, and we need to test them in many other parts of the world, this is a positive sign for Loon’s economic and operational viability,” Teller wrote. “We’ll be able to put together a Loon network over a particular region in weeks not months, and it would be a lot less work to launch and manage. We’ll reduce the number of balloons we need and get greater value out of each one. All of this helps reduce the costs of operating a Loon-powered network, which is … critical given that cost has been one key factor keeping reliable Internet from people living in rural and remote regions.”

Back in the game?

Indeed, it appears that Project Loon’s drive for more cost-effective solutions has paid off.
“The profitability of the project might be the most important factor since Alphabet has already lost billions of dollars on other projects,” writes Victor Thomson in iTech Post. “Under the company’s chief financial officer Ruth Porat and profit and cost have become very important. When she was brought on board last year, one of her most important tasks was to reign in spending on experimental projects that were running on deficit by not making money. … Taking into consideration the profitability, the new direction of the Project Loon guarantees that the idea could stay afloat for a while longer.”

Behind the ‘breakthrough’

Originally conceived as a worldwide network of balloons circumnavigating the earth, work on improved altitude control and navigation systems saw the development of a more targeted, more efficient approach. The smart software algorithms help to keep balloons in regional clusters, reducing the number needed per deployment from several hundred to just 10 to 30 balloons.

The expense of land-based Internet deployment has seen air-based connectivity projects gain in popularity as a means to connect the unconnected. Other companies have already launched trials in the field, including Facebook’s Aquila.

At the end of 2016, 3.9 billion people, or 53% of the world’s population, were still offline. Internet connectivity has the potential to change lives, providing access to services that may be out of reach in remote locations, including e-government, e-commerce, e-education and e-health.

Lucy Spencer (@L_M_Spencer)

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