Project Loon, the initiative of Alphabet’s X lab to deliver internet using air balloons, is looking into deploying Wi-Fi balloons to help alleviate the crisis in Puerto Rico, the company confirmed. “The Project Loon team at X is exploring if it’s possible to bring emergency connectivity to Puerto Rico,” the X lab’s official Twitter account wrote this afternoon. X, formerly Google X, is the “moonshot” division of Google-owner Alphabet, responsible for the Wing drone delivery project and the self-driving car unit that became Waymo, among other forward-looking tech-adjacent initiatives.
Puerto Rico, home to nearly 3.5 million people, remains largely devastated by Hurricane Maria, the Category 4 storm that has claimed 24 lives in Puerto Rico alone and has left almost the entirety of the US territory without electricity and almost half of all residents without potable water.
Because of the damage done to the island’s communications infrastructure, more than 90 percent of Puerto Rico’s cell towers remain offline and residents are unable to contact friends and relatives. And despite the occasional tweet from President Donald Trump claiming Washington is working to provide aid, the administration has not yet said whether it will help repair Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. Facebook announced earlier this week that it was sending a connectivity team to Puerto Rico, as well as a $1.5 million donation, to help get the island back on online.
Providing connectivity to areas affected by natural disasters has been one of the core missions of Loon since its inception in 2011. The unit has run pilot programs in New Zealand and Brazil, and it’s also partnered with a number of countries, including Indonesia and Sri Lanka, to deploy LTE using its signature air balloons. However, it appears that Loon has never attempted to provide emergency connectivity at the scale Puerto Rico requires. It’s unclear to what extent Loon may be able to assist the island, and if its technology is capable of doing so in a way as meaningful as the necessary financial and infrastructural aid the US government could provide.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified the balloons used by Project Loon as hot air balloons. They are not; Loon uses high-altitude helium balloons.