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‘Project Loon’ Wi-fi balloons to help restore mobile networks in hurricane devastated Puerto Rico

Several tech companies propose disaster response ideas, most aimed at getting phone and internet service up and running

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 October, 2017, 4:09pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 October, 2017, 8:53pm

Google’s parent company was set to launch balloons into the Caribbean skies in an attempt to restore telephone networks in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Alphabet Inc., which controls Google, obtained authorisation from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to deploy the devices – developed from 2013 as part of a project known as “Loon”.

It aims to temporarily re-establish Puerto Rico’s cellular network – where 83 per cent of cell sites were still out of service, according to FCC figures.

“More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, millions of Puerto Ricans are still without access to much-needed communications services,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement.

“That’s why we need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on the island,” he added, urging wireless carriers to “cooperate with Project Loon to maximise this effort’s chances of success.”

Loon, part of a series of futuristic projects out of Alphabet’s “X” laboratory, was originally created to provide internet coverage in underdeveloped rural areas.

A similar project using drones was closed down in 2016.

The balloons are sent 20 kilometres above the Earth’s surface, where they can remain autonomously for over 100 days. They are made from a polythene canvas the size of a tennis court.

Initially designed to drift, the balloons are now equipped with navigation systems, powered by solar panels, which keep them in a specific area.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also pledged to send a “connectivity team” to help restore communications in ravaged Puerto Rico.

The announcement comes after electric carmaker Tesla said it could help restore electricity to Puerto Rico using solar panels and batteries.

Responding to a tweet asking if Tesla could help, chief executive Elon Musk answered: “The Tesla team has done this for many smaller islands around the world, but there is no scalability limit, so it can be done for Puerto Rico too.”

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosello joined the conversation, tweeting to Musk: “Let’s talk. Do you want to show the world the power and scalability of your #TeslaTechnologies? PR could be that flagship project.”

Tesla and Musk have for years been seeking to push the auto industry to electric to reduce the use of fossil fuels, and more recently have introduced residential and commercial solar batteries which can operate off the electric power grid.

Additional reporting by Tribune News Service