Giant Balloons Help Restore Wireless Service to Storm-Ravaged Puerto Rico

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Project Loon’s massive balloons (Photo Credit: X.company)

Hurricane Maria, which tore through Puerto Rico in late September, knocked down 95 percent of the island’s cell towers and electric poles. While cellular telephone and utility companies have been frantically trying to restore the services, approximately 80% of Puerto Rico still has no wireless service or electricity.

Photo Credit: X.company

On Friday, October 20, X, the innovation laboratory of Google’s parent company Alphabet, helped restore connectivity to a few lucky residents by deploying two of their massive Project Loon balloons. Floating 60,000 feet above the Caribbean islands, they enabled customers of cell phone carrier AT&T to connect to basic text, email and web services. If all goes well, the company plans to send an additional 28 balloons, enough to bring back wireless service to not just the residents of Puerto Rico, but also, the nearby US Virgin Islands that was also impacted by the storms. The balloons, which can provide uninterrupted signals for up to six months, will give cellular companies enough time to repair the ground towers.

Image Credit: X. company

The translucent, helium-filled balloons, which aim to bring the Internet to even the most rural areas of the world, are made using lightweight polyethylene fabric that can withstand 62 mph (100 km/hr) winds, intense UV radiation, and the stratosphere’s dramatic temperature swings. Each 49-foot diameter sphere is fitted with powerful transmitters capable of re-distributing 4G LTE internet signals, received from ground stations, to a land area 80 km in diameter. This means a single balloon can serve thousands of people.

The “cell towers in the sky” are powered by solar panels that require just four hours of sunlight to collect and store enough energy to keep the balloons afloat for an entire day. Balloons that need maintenance or replacement are automatically herded to a central collection point. In case of a malfunction, a parachute will deploy and bring it safely back to Earth.

Image Credit: X.company

Though Project Loon, which began testing over New Zealand skies in 2013, has been unable to accomplish its ambitious mission of providing internet to the world, it has been instrumental in assisting communities struck by natural disasters. In addition to helping Puerto Rico, the balloons also provided wireless connection to tens of thousands of Peru residents who were cut off from the world, following catastrophic floods, earlier this year. Now, if someone could only figure out how to launch an “electric tower in the sky” to help the millions of Puerto Rico residents that still don’t have power.

Resources: x.company.com, newatlas.com.

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afloatambitiousapproximatelycatastrophicconnectivitydeployfranticallyimpactedinnovationinstrumentalmaintenancemalfunctionpolyethyleneradiationtranslucenttransmittersuninterruptedwirelesswithstand
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Reading Comprehension (16 questions)

  1. What did Hurricane Maria do to Puerto Rico’s cell towers and electricity poles in late September?
  2. How much of the island still remains without wireless connection and electricity?
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Critical Thinking Challenge

What would you miss more –  Internet access or...

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Vocabulary in Context

While cellular telephone and utility companies have been frantically trying to restore the services, approximately 80% of Puerto Rico still has no wireless service or...

277 Comments
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  • ???Thursday, November 1, 2018 at 6:45 pm
    that is great when you have no internet
    • hiWednesday, October 10, 2018 at 1:35 pm
      my aunt is going to Puerto rico next month
      • captain cobraFriday, October 5, 2018 at 8:41 am
        it is kinda cool
        • lebron jamesMonday, September 24, 2018 at 8:24 am
          i love it i am the real lebron by the way
          • Smarty PantsTuesday, January 16, 2018 at 12:49 pm
            I am from Puerto Rico, and I have my whole family here. I know it happen last September,but half of my family has electricity.
            • THEHACREFriday, January 12, 2018 at 4:10 pm
              this article actually not kidding sounds amazing!!!!
              • OmgThursday, December 21, 2017 at 5:48 am
                I saw a lot of pictures of puerto rico because family lives there and I am so worried about them.
                • hiWednesday, December 20, 2017 at 7:06 am
                  cool
                  • lizTuesday, December 19, 2017 at 2:38 pm
                    cool
                    • kikMonday, December 11, 2017 at 7:51 pm
                      i live in puerto rico im acctually here now. the connection here is like no connection ever done before## awsome

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