Alphabet’s Loon balloons developed clever strategies to pass 1M hours flying in Earth’s stratosphere

Alphabet’s Loon subsidiary, which aims to blanket the Earth in high-speed broadband internet connectivity, has passed the 1 million-hour mark in terms of total time spent in Earth’s stratosphere across all its flights. The balloons occupy the upper-edge of Earth’s atmosphere, in an altitude band between 50,000 and 70,000 feet, riding wind currents and using automated navigation systems to intelligently fly in specific areas defined by Loon’s engineers.

Loon’s balloons have accumulated almost 40 million km (nearly 25 million miles), or enough to make the trip to the Moon and back more than 50 times. The result of all that time spent flying is that the automated navigation software has come up with some unexpected methods for ensuring the balloons stay in their designated flight target zones while dealing with those high-altitude winds.

The balloons make use of zig-zag patterns, similar to tacking tactics used by sailing vessels, for instance — but in doing so they employ strategies that are counterintuitive to even an experienced human navigator. They also waited out or “loitered” in some areas rather than continuing on an expected path, because they can take in wind forecast data and anticipate how to hitch a ride to get where they need to be rather than having to loop back around.

figure8 Loon

The balloons also adopted figure-eight patterns instead of simple circles to stay in a specific area over longer periods of time, which indeed proved the more effective way to deliver a reliable and consistent LTE connection over time. This was again not what human researchers would’ve attempted as a first choice, proving that logging the hours and letting the automated system figure out what works best based on mission parameters was the wisest course.

Loon CTO Salvatore Candido notes in this blog post that he’s actually unsure of whether or not to qualify this decision-making as basic AI or not — a refreshing admission in an era when most companies try their best to classify as AI everything that can possible fit the definition of AI, even loosely. But regardless of what you call it, the software’s ability to adapt to its operating conditions and goals is impressive, and a great sign for Loon’s long-term mission of delivering affordable broadband connections to underserved areas.