Google’s parent company Alphabet is to close Loon, the company tasked with developing giant balloons to provide internet and communications from the stratosphere to rural regions.
Loon was launched in 2012 as one of Alphabet’s X technology-development projects and employs around 200 people. Loon’s massive helium-filled balloons, which are 15m (49ft) across and 12m (39ft) tall when fully inflated, were intended to carry communications equipment that would deliver internet connectivity to remote rural locations autonomously for extended periods of time.
In March 2020 Loon concluded a 312-day flight test in Mexico, a new flight duration record for a balloon in the stratosphere after launching in Puerto Rico in May 2019.
However, despite this and other technical successes, Alphabet has decided that the concept is not commercially viable.
Writing in a blog post, Loon’s CEO Alastair Westgarth said, “We haven’t found a way to get the costs low 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.”
Technology developed for Loon, such as the high bandwidth (20Gbps+) optical communication links used between balloons use is being applied in different projects including Project Taara. The project is partnering with Kenyan telecommunications company Telkom to provide affordable, high-speed internet to unconnected and under-connected communities in the country.
Head of Alphabet’s X, Astro Teller said that Loon will be wound down over the coming months and that its employees will be transferred to alternative roles in X, Google and Alphabet, with a small group staying on to ensure Loon’s operations are wrapped up smoothly and safely, including winding down its pilot service in Kenya.