Helium balloons that beam internet service to hard-to-serve areas are using AI to navigate amid high-altitude winds.

What’s new: Loon, the Alphabet division that provides wireless internet via polyethylene blimps, used reinforcement learning to develop an autonomous control system that keeps the vehicles closer to their targets while consuming less energy than its hand-coded predecessor. The new algorithm controls Loon’s fleet over Kenya, where the company launched its first commercial service in July.

How it works: Balloons navigate by ascending or descending to catch winds that push them in the direction desired. Loon used QR-DQN, a distributional reinforcement learning algorithm, to train a feed-forward network to determine when the balloon should ascend, descend, or stay put.

  • Working with Google AI’s Montreal team, Loon researchers modified a weather dataset from the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts to generate a large number of wind scenarios. They modeled the physics of balloon flight within these synthesized wind fields to build simulations used to train and evaluate the model.
  • In training, the model received the maximum reward when the balloon was within 50 kilometers of its base station, the range at which it reliably sends and receives signals. The reward halved with every 100 kilometers the balloon strayed.
  • In use, instruments on board feed the model wind readings from the balloon’s current location and wake. It estimates wind conditions at nearby locations using a Gaussian process that analyzes weather readings from nearby balloons and forecasts from the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. A pump inflates or deflates the balloon accordingly.
  • In real world tests against the earlier flight control system, the new algorithm stayed on target 7 percent more often while cutting  energy consumption by 4 watts day.

Behind the news: Loon began within Alphabet’s experimental X division in the early 2010s and became a for-profit subsidiary in 2018. The company provided emergency internet access to Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria in 2017, and to Peru following a massive earthquake in 2019. A single balloon can serve several thousand individuals spread over 80 square kilometers.

Why it matters: Billions of people, including two-thirds of all school-age children, don’t have access to the internet. In the Covid era, with students and workers alike staying home, the digital divide is more acute than ever. Cutting the cost of service to remote areas could bring many of those people into the information economy.

We’re thinking: In Kenya, where Loon’s first balloons are flying, better connections could boost the growing community of AI engineers. To learn more about Kenya’s AI scene, check out our Working AI profile of data scientist and DeepLearning.AI ambassador Kennedy Kamande Wangari.

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