In 2017, after four years of setbacks and crashes, Alphabet shut its project flying solar-powered fixed-wing drones in the upper atmosphere to beam the internet to those cut-off. Facebook then exited its similar project. And Alphabet has now dumped its upper-atmosphere balloon version as well.
However, the Chinese aerospace industry, along with Airbus, Boeing, and NASA are progressing with their aim to being 5G and 6G communications to everyone, perform surveillance, and more.
The Chinese even have a smaller solar drone, Mei Ying, that survives night and day at the weaker light at 4 600 meters for fast establishment of a WiFi emergency-information network and for surveillance in remote regions.
Later it may team with 6G upper-atmosphere drones and low-earth-orbit LEO satellites.
Alphabet’s Loon project aimed to put balloons in the upper atmosphere were to bring cellular connectivity to remote parts of the world where building a traditional mobile network would be too difficult and costly. With Loon, Alphabet promised internet connectivity to everyone.
However, Astro Teller, who heads Alphabet subsidiary X, commented when the project was scuppered: “The road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped. So we’ve made the difficult decision to close down Loon.”
This is Alphabet’s third drone exit because in 2020, they shut the wind-power project Makani based on a conductive tether to a large drone.
Indeed, says IDTechEx, the Loon project did deliver, using helium-filled balloons powered by solar panels. Using artificial intelligence to guide them, they did in fact transmit internet signals to ground stations and personal devices.
The first commercial use was in 2020. With Telkom Kenya, 35 balloons were deployed to provide a 4G LTE network connection to a 31 000 square mile area, including Nairobi.
Earlier, they provided a cellular service to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
The business case for Loon has not materialized partly because there is competition from other companies such as Starlink from SpaceX and Blue Origin from Amazon, both of which use thousands of small LEO satellites.
IDTechEx advises that a different type of inflatable from the Loon balloons is the unmanned airship, and this can compete with LEO satellites by holding position, carrying over 10 times the payload at low cost.
Lockheed-Martin and Thales Alenia use a large area of flexible photovoltaics on top, rolling to face the sun.
Thales Alenia Space (the joint venture between Thales, 67% and Leonardo, 33%) and Thales signed a contract with French defense procurement agency DGA in 2021 for a concept study of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance applications using this Stratobus. The first flight will be in 2023.
Raghu Das, CEO of analysts IDTechEx, comments: “6G Communications may become an even bigger business than the 5G that is now rolling out worldwide. The Chinese have just sent up a satellite to study 6G physics in the simple environment of space. This is the virgin territory of terahertz electronics called ‘the terahertz gap’.
“For both 5G and 6G, the software, hardware, and materials opportunities are enormous. Despite this, only some of the giants are successfully participating.”