Loon donates balloon flight data to science

It looks as though Loon’s discovery about fluffy socks helping in the transformation of stratospheric-powered balloons isn’t for nothing after all.

Once overseen by Google’s Captain of Moonshots, the project that arose out of the looney idea that balloons could help power connectivity in hard-to-reach places came to an end in February 2021. The powers-that-be decided the path to commercial viability was going to take longer and was riskier than hoped. So, they started winding down the business and, as we’re now learning, partitioned parts for recycling, so to speak.

Loon started out as a project within Google in 2011 and graduated to become a business under Alphabet in 2018. For nearly a decade, Loon developed balloons that eventually traversed the stratosphere, and, with help from LTE connections, delivered internet connectivity.

Some of Alphabet’s other moonshots are Waymo for driverless cars and Wing delivery drones.

Alas, the balloon business didn’t prove as fruitful as anticipated and Alphabet announced in February 2021 that it was winding down. Some of its innovations are going into a collection for The Loon Library, and a number of patents are getting transferred to partners in the area of stratospheric ballooning and networking. (SoftBank is one of the recipients.) Project Taara is another beneficiary of the learnings.

The backers of Loon announced today that they’re making Loon's stratospheric wind and weather measurements, as well as electrical measurements collected by "Stormtrooper,” publicly available. Stormtrooper refers to a sensor that was developed to detect electrical measurements from thunderstorms.

“Loon’s data is already supporting new work in climate science and we hope this new collection will help scientists and researchers as they work to better understand our changing climate,” the Loon team wrote in a blog post. They compiled a lot of their insights into The Loon Library (pdf).

Folks who are in Washington, D.C., over the next few months can see a “final glimpse” of a Loon balloon at the Smithsonian’ FUTURES exhibit. The FUTURES exhibit will take place from November 2021 until the summer of 2022.

RELATED: Alphabet shuts down Loon and its balloons

Last year, Loon launched service in Kenya, marking a first in several ways, including the first non-emergency use of Loon to provide service on a large-scale basis. Loon’s strategy was to partner with telecom service providers in the markets where it launched, and in South Africa, Telkom Kenya was one of its partners.  

Loon's history includes an experimental pilot in New Zealand, where a small group of Loon pioneers tested the technology. The results of the pilot test, as well as subsequent tests in New Zealand, California's Central Valley and Northeast Brazil, were used to improve the technology.

There were even times when balloons were reported as UFO sightings over Kentucky. The story about the fluffy socks was part of a keynote by Astro Teller, who told I/O conference attendees in 2015 about how they were trying to figure out how to prevent leaks when they were making the balloons, and fluffy socks resulted in fewer leaks than regular socks.