Project Loon team gave Puerto Rico connectivity—and assembled a helicopter
AUSTIN, Texas—"So this happened—this is September 2017," Juan Ramírez Lugo, president of the AAAS Caribbean division, tells the audience at the 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Conference. The slide that soon greets the room depicts an almost surreal reality: the available power (or lack thereof) on the island of Puerto Rico in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
"The island went dark; the Virgin Islands basically disappeared off the map. This blew my mind to not have my cell phone in this day and age," Ramírez Lugo continues. "The routine eventually became get up in the morning, then try to check the news and Status.pr to see how much service has returned to normal."
Ramírez Lugo cited estimates that the cost of Hurricane Maria's damage will total 34.1 percent of Puerto Rico's GDP, so calling the storm devastating almost seems like an understatement. The routine Ramírez Lugo shared highlighted another crucial (re)building block for disaster recovery, one that's now joined general infrastructure and health needs: connectivity. With the vast amount of electrical grid and ground towers damaged, FEMA estimates put cell service availability at a mere 60 percent an entire month after the storm.
That’s precisely when Project Loon stepped in. Project Loon is the high-profile balloon Internet experiment from Alphabet's X (formerly Google X); on October 20, project lead Alastair Westgarth wrote a blog post revealing that it was working with AT&T and T-Mobile to support basic communications on the island, including text messaging and Internet access through LTE-compatible phones. This marks the first time Project Loon pointed its machine-learning algorithms toward keeping balloons over Puerto Rico—the island previously only hosted launch sites—and the first time its leaders recognized that their goal of connecting underserved areas may mesh perfectly with disaster response.
"We usually think about [Project Loon] in places with no existent network, but when a network goes out, people who were served become underserved," says Sal Candido, a director and principal engineer at X, who presented with Ramírez Lugo at this weekend's conference. "In the future, being prepared for these kind of things is something we hadn't really thought of, but it could be done in advance as a contingency."
Candido notes that the pace of partnerships made Project Loon's Puerto Rico deployment so successful—the initiative delivered Internet to 100,000 Puerto Ricans by early November, and Candido says the number exceeds 200,000 now. Typical deployments require Project Loon to work out ground network hardware with local governments, recruit existing carriers in the area for service, and then acquire the rights to use the spectrum.
"This usually takes four to six months; spectrum licenses alone can take years," he says. "We managed to get it all to happen within a couple of weeks, much faster than we previously thought possible." And going forward, Candido believes Project Loon may be able to help areas more susceptible to natural disasters set up such contingency partnerships in advance.
Beyond the bureaucratic elements, another major challenge for Project Loon's Puerto Rico deployment was quickly plotting effective balloon patterns and then figuring out how to maintain them. The company simulates 30 million kilometers of potential navigation daily to better understand how jet streams and weather patterns will impact balloon routes. Eventually, the team settled on a path that launches from Winnemucca, Nevada, and travels south. To date, balloons are still being launched on this trajectory and as many as five to seven can be canvassing the island at a time.
"Here's a nice picture, one when it's working really well," Candido says, introducing a slide in which a handful of balloons can provide coverage for a majority of the island. "[After a disaster] there's a lot of things needed, but this was one very small thing that could help people out."
Although what Loon accomplished shows great potential for future use, Candido remained quick to acknowledge it's just one small contribution to the massive recovery efforts still needed in Puerto Rico. In fact, being on the ground there during the planning stages of this Loon implementation only further drove that point home for the engineer. He unexpectedly took part in much heavier lifting.
"We quickly realized this was a situation with very mission-oriented tasks, and many mission-oriented people were down there. It was hard to get things on and off the island, so we'd take water filters for other organizations or partner with military, and they'd all do favors back for us," Candido says. "I actually learned Chinook helicopters come in pieces—you have to pick up the motor mount and literally put it on top of the helicopter. Once, the government contractor with the crane couldn't get there in time, but Google happened to have one around to lift our boats out of the water. They came right over and said, 'You know that thing over there, it might work.' It did."
Listing image by Google