Airspace Q4 2018: Sailing the winds at 60,000 feet

17 December 2018

Loon is working to expand Internet connectivity to communities around the world via a network of high-altitude balloons. Operating at 60,000 feet, Loon's balloons act as floating cell towers, beaming Internet access directly to users' phones on the ground. To ensure the balloons get to where they need to go, Loon has combined advances in engineering, machine learning, and weather forecasting to develop an autonomous navigation system that makes balloon-powered Internet a reality.

In the stratosphere, winds travel in different directions at different altitudes. While one layer may cause the balloon to drift from its target location, another layer might take the balloon in the right direction. Rather than trying to fly against the wind, Loon's balloons move up or down to capture a favourable current.

To identify helpful wind patterns, Loon uses advanced predictive models to determine wind speed and direction at each altitude. Custom-designed algorithms help determine the most effective combination of paths. With the aid of these algorithms, the balloons can accurately sail the winds over thousands of kilometers to get where they need to go. Once over the service region, the operation of the fleet is choreographed to allow for continued service below. The entire navigation system functions autonomously, with operators providing continuous human oversight.

After 30 million kilometers of real-world flight, Loon is preparing to take its floating cell towers to Africa to begin providing Internet access unserved communities in 2019. None of it would be possible without these advances that allow the balloons to sail the wind at 60,000 feet. And Loon is hopeful that many of the traffic management techniques and technologies that it is developing will have a wider application to aviation in general.


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