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

Alphabet’s Loon project, which aimed to deliver the internet via a series of balloons, was shut down last year, but the technology associated with it has been transformed into a startup that ditches floating platforms and aims to use lasers and cloud to deliver the Internet to remote locations. The company that inherits Google’s 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 front company.

Aalyria has two main objectives: Tightbeam, a laser communication system that uses beams of light to transmit data between base stations and endpoints, and Spacetime, the cloud-based software designed to juggle constantly evolving connections. Spacetime was originally intended to predict how Loon’s balloons moved and keep the connections strong between them; now, his job is to predict when a Tightbeam station (which can be terrestrial or satellite) will have to transfer its connection to a moving object, such as a plane or a boat.

According to a report by Bloomberg, Aalyria is selling its software now 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, by transmitting light from one point to another. It only does this through the air instead of over a physical connection, which obviously makes it more flexible, especially over long distances. The company claims the system is blazing fast: “100-1000 times faster than anything else available today,” according to a press release. This, it turns out, is the power of damn laser beams, although they do have some potential reliability drawbacks that physical fiber doesn’t have, which we’ll talk about in a moment. (The reference to Dr. Evil comes directly from Aalyria; Bloomberg states that his lab has “shark sculptures with laser beams attached to the head.”)

Bloomberg notes that Tightbeam was created by a Google project called Sonora, which the company hasn’t spoken publicly about. However, Alphabet had another separate Loon-related laser project that saw the light of day: Project Taara, which provided internet service to Africa using lasers originally intended to link balloons together.

The Taara project used those lasers, known as optical communication links in free space, to augment traditional fiber paths, but could theoretically be used in places where cables would be impossible or complicated (such as traversing a gorge, canyon or a river, for example). At the time, the Taara team said the system was relatively resistant to obstacles like haze, light rain, and birds, but admitted that Africa’s climate was more ideal than that of San Francisco, where fog is so constant. which has its own Wikipedia article.

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

The company appears to want to tackle SpaceX in terms of the services it offers. According to CNBC, it hopes its laser communication technology will be used to provide services for aircraft, ships, cellular connectivity and satellite communications. Using more airwaves, Starlink is starting to provide Wi-Fi for some airlines and cruise ships, as well as for RVs and home internet customers. SpaceX also transmits information from space. Bloomberg notes that some Tightbeam tests involved ground stations sending a signal on to planes, and the company’s website says something similar could also be done to send signals to satellites.

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

Right now, Aalyria is small: 26 people, according to Bloomberg. And while it has the rights to use Google’s technology, there is a difference between producing and testing an interesting technology and being able to actually sell it for use in the real world, which Alphabet itself discovered with Loon’s pilot commercial service in Kenya. .

However, the idea was apparently compelling enough to attract some investors, including the US Department of Defense. Whether you are an evil supervillain trying to beautify your lair or a company trying to “interconnect everything that exists today with everything that exists tomorrow,” as Aalyria CEO Chris Taylor said. Bloomberglasers are still very effective at capturing the imagination.

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