Alphabet is to shut down Internet balloon company Project Loon.
The company announced the news on Friday morning after nine years in development, saying that the project hadn’t found a way to lower costs enough to build a long-term, sustainable business.
“Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier. Today, I’m sad to share that Loon will be winding down,” said Alastair Westgarth, chief executive of Loon.
Following on from the announcement, partners have pulled the plug on Loon-based projects. Vodacom Group announced plans to deliver Loon-based Internet in Mozambique last May, but has now cancelled this, according to TechCentral.
Another Google moonshot cancelled
Project Loon began as a ‘moonshot’ idea under Google’s X skunkworks lab in 2011 before being spun out in a separate business unit under parent company Alphabet in 2018. The aim was to use high-altitude balloons in the stratosphere at an altitude of 18-25 km (11-16 miles) and create an aerial wireless network to deliver the Internet to remote and rural communities.
The project came to wider public attention while providing connectivity following natural disasters in Puerto Rico in 2017 and Peru in 2019. Loon ran pilots in New Zealand, Shri Lanka, and Brazil, and managed to achieve a flight duration of 312 days for a single balloon. The company announced its first commercial agreement with Telkom Kenya in 2018 and raised $125 million from SoftBank in 2019.
Alphabet said it is winding down Loon’s pilot service in Kenya but will create a $10million fund to support non-profits and businesses focussed on connectivity, Internet, entrepreneurship and education in Kenya.
The internet-providing balloons pushed the envelope on innovations such as connecting communications payloads from the stratosphere to devices on the ground, software that manages constellations of vehicles, and developing techniques to navigate windcurrents and enable the balloons to reach and stay in one area.
“While this isn’t the outcome I envisioned for Loon when I joined four years ago, I continue to be immensely proud of the accomplishments of the entire Loon team and hope that our efforts will live on in ways that we can’t yet imagine,” said Westgarth.
Loon joins a long list of Google/Alphabet skunkworks projects on the scrapheap. The company's Makani flying wind turbine project was closed in 2020, the Chronicle security platform was folded into Google Cloud in 2019, and the Wi-Fi project Google Station was axed last year.
Project Taara, a light-based high-speed broadband project based on technology developed for Loon, continues. So too do a number of Alphabets other moonshots including autonomous vehicle project Waymo, energy storage project Malta, heating company Dandelion, the Wing drone delivery service, and health startup Verily.
High-altitude internet projects have been an area of increasing focus for a number of companies over the years. Facebook canceled its Aquila fixed-wing drone project in 2018, but both Airbus and BAE are still running their Zephyr and PHASA-35 programs respectively. Thales' autonomous airship Stratobus concept has been in development since at least 2014, and EE has a lower altitude drone and balloon concept for use as temporary masts in emergency zones.
Above where Loon would have operated, other companies are looking to provide internet coverage via a large number of low-orbit satellites. Amazon, SpaceX’s Starlink, and OneWeb are amongst a number of companies that have or are proposing to launch hundreds or thousands of satellites and provide connectivity to rural areas.