Alphabet Pulls The Plug On Digital Ballooning Venture Loon

Alphabet, google, loon, X, helium, balloons, connectivity, remote

Google’s parent company Alphabet is pulling the plug on its subsidiary Loon, a futuristic venture that for the past decade was exploring the use of giant helium balloons to deliver internet access to remote locales.

“Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity — the last billion users,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth said in a blog post on Medium. 

The company aimed to bring internet access to remote communities and low-income areas unable to afford the technology. In the end, Loon couldn’t “build a long-term, sustainable business,” noted the blog post.

Loon was originally part of Alphabet’s X division. In 2018, after years of conducting tests with high-altitude helium balloons, it was spun off to become its own subsidiary. The company worked alongside global aviation and communications regulators, devising ways “to safely fly a lighter-than-air vehicle for hundreds of days in the stratosphere to anywhere in the world,” Westgarth said.

Created from sheets of polyethylene and powered by solar panels, the massive balloons were the size of tennis courts, according to a New York Times report. Software and artificial intelligence (AI) facilitated flight control and enabled the balloons’ journey into the stratosphere.

He added that Loon developed several important technologies that could possibly pave the way for future innovations. Its “deep reinforcement learning navigation system” has opened the door to the future monitoring of Earth’s vital signs, he noted.

Astro Teller, “Captain of Moonshots” for X, said in a separate blog post that a small number of Loon staffers are staying on to wind down operations in a safe manner, including Loon’s pilot service in Kenya. The company is supporting connectivity, entrepreneurship and education in Kenya with $10 million.

Loon went live in Kenya in July with 35 flight vehicles and an initial service region of close to 50,000 square kilometers across western and central Kenya. Last year, Loon was also able to provide internet access in the Amazon rainforest.