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Google’s Project Loon Leaps Forward With Weather-Predicting Machine Learning

Sam Pudwell joined Silicon UK as a reporter in December 2016. As well as being the resident Cloud aficionado, he covers areas such as cyber security, government IT and sports technology, with the aim of going to as many events as possible.

Google is now “years closer” to rolling out a network of the balloons thanks to machine learning

Google has claimed to have taken a big step forward in its Project Loon research through the use of machine learning to predict weather patterns and systems.

Project Loon aims to provide affordable internet connections to remote areas through a network of huge balloons and is part of Alphabet’s famed X Labs division, home to the company’s most experimental projects.

The use of machine learning as brought the firm “years closer” to rolling out the balloons as it has given researchers much better control over where the balloons go, meaning they can focus on a specific region.

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Balloon-powered internet

Google believes the algorithms are now able to predict weather patterns with enough accuracy to enable balloons to be placed over a specific area for a long period of time.

Astro Teller,  head of X Labs, said: “We can now run an experiment and try to give service in a particular place in the world with ten, twenty or thirty balloons.” This is much less than the number previously needed.

He added that the system will be available to “real users” in the “coming months”, although refrained from giving a specific date.  

The Project Loon initiative was first launched in 2013 and it took until April 2015 before Google was ready to launch the balloons en masse after streamlining its manufacturing processes.

Large-scale trials shortly followed, first in Indonesia where Google partnered with three of the country’s wireless carriers to boost internet access for 100 million people in the country. However, Indonesia’s biggest telco Telkom expressed concern, saying the Project Loon will undercut its efforts to lay fibre optic cables in some of the country’s provinces.

This was followed by a trial in Sri Lanka, where the local government agreed to take a 25 percent stake in the joint venture in exchange for access to the much-needed connectivity spectrum.

Each balloon is able to remain airborne for up to six months, providing internet access to an area of around 780 square miles, with access speeds of up to 15 megabits per second, enough to carry live video.

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