Loon was developing solar powered cellular basestations suspended by huge weather balloons in the stratosphere to provide mobile phone and data coverage to remote regions. “Loon’s journey is coming to an end,” said Alastair Westgarth, CEO, who joined the project in 2017.
“We found ways to safely fly a lighter-than-air vehicle for hundreds of days in the stratosphere to anywhere in the world,” he said. “We built a system for quickly and reliably launching a vehicle size of a tennis court, and we built a global supply chain for an entirely new technology and business. We also scaled up our communications equipment to a communications system capable of delivering mobile internet coverage over an 11,000 square kilometer area — 200x that of an average cell tower.”
However the project struggled with the power requirements of the cellular basestation, a challenge for the drone-based stratospheric basestations projects such as UK-developed Zephyr and HAPS Mobile, which is also backed by Alphabet. Facebook’s UK-developed Aquila drone was cancelled in 2018, and UK startup SPL is looking to use a hydrogen fuel cell rather than batteris ot provide the necessary power.
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“The world needs a layered approach to connectivity — terrestrial, stratospheric, and space-based — because each layer is suited to different parts of the problem,” said Westgarth. “In this area, Loon has made a number of important technical contributions. This includes creating communications payloads that can connect from the stratosphere to many types of devices on the ground — from mobile phones to sailing ships to smart sprinklers — possibly paving the way for more options in unlocking the full potential of the Internet of Things.”
Next: Loon constellation management software
Loon also pioneered software that manages constellations of connectivity vehicles, ensuring they can provide the right service to the right area at the right time, said Westgarth. This will be a key capability for other HAPS services that plan to use groups of drones in the air to provide the data service across a wide area and feed the data back to a ground station.
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