AALTO seeks to democratize high-speed internet access through solar-powered drones

In the beginning of 2021, Alphabet shuttered Loon. It was a familiar story within the annals of Google X history: an ambitious moonshot with tremendous upside that sputtered out prior to gaining any sort of meaningful traction after nearly a decade.

“Despite Loon’s extraordinary technical progress,” X explains with a tinge of melancholy on the former project’s page, “the path to commercial viability proved much longer and riskier than hoped, so in 2021 Loon’s journey came to an end.”

The project utilized weather balloons to deliver high-speed internet to spots that lack infrastructure such as Sub-Saharan Africa. Loon drummed up a good bit of interest and saw use in the wake of natural disasters like the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico back in 2017.

Some of Loon’s fundamental technologies live on in other Alphabet project. Its spirit, meanwhile, is maintained by Airbus through AALTO. Where Loon relied on balloons, however, the newer project utilizes Zephyr solar-powered drones.

“[Loon] got really good customer engagement,”  AALTO CEO Samer Halawi told TechCrunch in a sit-down interview last week at Mobile World Congress. “They got people signing up for the service very quickly. What happened, though was balloons move around. What they did to overcome this was use multiple balloons and they relayed a signal from one to the other. They ended up having to use eight times the balloons in order to cover the same area.”

AALTO relies on fixed-winged drones, which are — at the very least — more predictable in their movements than weather balloons. Airbus acquired the technology for the fixed-wing drones from U.K. Ministry of Defence and Space spinoff QinetiQ in 2022.

The Zephyrs take off from a circular runway, ascending in an ever-widening spiral. The drones reach the stratosphere at a height of more than 60,000 feet. This keeps them above commercial aircraft, as well as weather phenomenon that can impede solar coverage. As it turns out, the airspace also isn’t regulated to nearly the same degree as those below it.

Per AALTO’s figures, each drone can account for up to 7,500-square-kilometers of ground surface — or the equivalent of up to 250 cell towers. Once airborne, the system can operate for months on solar power alone. Every six months or so, the system will land for a battery swap, as these still have a limited shelf life.

AALTO’s go to market includes deals with carriers, as well as government agencies. Like Loon before it, the company is also exploring temporary deployment for downed cell towers following natural disasters.

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