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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.
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.
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.
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.