It has been nearly two months since the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico was hit by Maria, a category five hurricane. Many people were forced to flee the island while others remained to fix their decimated homes.
Nearly half of the island remains without power. Only one in 10 residents are without safe drinking water. With 95 percent of cell phone towers destroyed, one company is trying a pretty interesting method for restoring communication to get the island moving again.
Alphabet’s company X is sending multiple “moonshoots” to bring telecommunications back to Puerto Rico. “Moonshoots” are balloons that are raised to the sky to act as emergency cell phone towers.
Project Loon was first introduced by Google to help establish internet service to hard-to-reach areas. Many people scoffed at the idea. Since Maria struck, the unbelievable project has now come to fruition.
Alastair Westgarth is leading the effort and says, “We are now collaborating with AT&T to deliver emergency Internet service to the hardest hit parts of the island.”
The way it works is quite simple. Receivers on the balloon tethered to a cable will communicate with temporary cell phone towers on the ground. One balloon has enough power to generate service to a 1,000 square foot area and will provide service to thousands of people at once.
One issue Project Loon ran into was the wind factor. Wind can create problems when sending a balloon to the desired area. But after years of tests, scientists were able to create algorithms to determine the best possible altitude for an ideal wind pattern for the balloons to follow.
X’s CEO (who has the best name ever) Astro Teller said, “We figured out how to cluster balloons in teams, dancing in small loops on the stratospheric winds, over a particular region.”
Another problem came from the need to liaise with local carriers to use pre-existing towers. After some readjustments on current towers, as well as approval from the FCC and the FAA, the balloons were ready to fly.
Puerto Rico is approximately 3,000 square miles, meaning only three balloons were needed, with a few added in case some of the balloons drifted off course.
As of today, 60 percent of the island has access to the internet and cellular service, giving Puerto Ricans a good start at the rebuild.