Sunday, September 24, 2023

Google’s failed balloon-based internet could be saved by lasers

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Alphabet’s Loon project, which aimed to deliver internet via a series of balloons, was halted last year – but the associated technology has turned into a startup that digs the floating platforms and aims to use lasers and the cloud to deliver internet to remote places. The company that inherits the Google technology is called Aalyria, and while CNBC Reports that Alphabet has a minority stake in it, it will no longer be a direct subsidiary of Google’s empty company.

Aalyria has two main goals: Tightbeam, a laser communication system that uses beams of light to transmit data between base stations and endpoints, and Spacetime, the cloud-based software intended to juggle ever-changing connections. Spacetime was originally intended to predict how loon’s balloons moved and to keep the interconnections strong; now his job is to predict when a Tightbeam station (which can be both ground and satellite based) to relinquish its connection to a moving object, such as an airplane or boat.

According to a report of BloombergAalyria is now selling its software and plans to sell Tightbeam hardware next year. In theory, the two could work together or separately – Spacetime isn’t just limited to laser-based systems.

Tightbeam is intended to transmit data in much the same way as a fiber optic cable, beaming light from one point to another. It just does it through the air rather than over a physical connection, which of course makes it more flexible, especially over long distances. The company claims the system is shockingly fast: “100-1000x faster than anything else available today,” according to a press release. That, it seems, is the power of damn laser beams – although they do have some potential reliability drawbacks that physical fibers don’t, which we’ll get into in a moment. (The reference to Dr. Evil comes straight from Aalyria; Bloomberg says the lab has “sculptures of sharks with laser beams on their heads.”)

Bloomberg notes that Tightbeam grew out of a Google project called Sonora, which the company didn’t talk about publicly. However, Alphabet had another Loon-related laser project that saw the light of day: Project Taara, which provided Internet service in Africa using lasers originally intended to connect the balloons together.

Project Taara used those lasers, known as the Free Space Optical Communications links, to augment traditional fiber optic links, but in theory they could be used in places where laying cables would be impossible or complicated (such as crossing a canyon, gorge or river, for example). At the time, the Taara team said the system was relatively resistant to obstacles such as fog, light rain and birds, but admitted that Africa’s climate was more ideal than San Francisco, where fog is so constant that it has its own Wikipedia article.

Aalyria says it has its own way of dealing with disturbances, compensating for how something like rain or dust would distort or scatter the light used to transmit the data (an important consideration when passing that light through the air and not the shielded glass wires that make up fiber optic cables).

The company seems to be looking for SpaceX in terms of the services it offers. According to CNBC, it hopes its laser communications technology will be used to provide services for aircraft, ships, cellular connectivity and satellite communications. By using more radio waves, Starlink is starting to offer Wi-Fi to some airlines and cruise ships, as well as RV and home internet customers. SpaceX also radiates information from space. Bloomberg notes that in some Tightbeam tests, ground stations sent a signal upwards to airplanes, and the company’s website says something similar can be done for sending signals to satellites as well.

In terms of improving mobile connectivity, Aalyria has a lot of competition from satellite companies such as Globalstar (Apple’s partner for the recently announced Emergency SOS via satellite function), SpaceX and T-Mobile, AST SpaceMobile, Lynk Global and Amazon, which has an agreement with Verizon to provide backhaul services to remote cell towers via Project Kuiper satellites.

At the moment, Aalyria is small: 26 people, according to Bloomberg. And while it has the rights to use Google’s technology, there’s a difference between creating and testing cool technology and actually being able to sell it for use in the real world — something Alphabet discovered itself with Loon’s commercial trial service in Kenya.

Still, the idea was apparently interesting enough to attract some investors, including the US Department of Defense. Whether you are an evil super villain trying to brighten up your hole or a company trying to “connect everything that exists today with everything that exists tomorrow,” as Aalyria’s CEO Chris Taylor told Bloomberglasers are still very effective at igniting the imagination.

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