Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Alphabet's loon sets its sights on the satellite industry

Similar to Loon’s balloons, NGSO satellites are constantly moving relative to one another and the Earth below.

From The Verge by Nick Statt

Satellite company Telesat will use Loon’s networking software to manage low Earth orbit constellations

Since its secret beginning in 2011, Loon has been pursuing the seemingly quixotic task of bringing internet to the world’s most remote corners via stratospheric helium balloons.
Now, after nearly a decade, the Alphabet-owned company is embarking on a new chapter, and it involves acknowledging it cannot accomplish the immense task of bringing billions of people online on its own.

Today, Loon is announcing a partnership with Canadian telecommunications company Telesat in a deal that will see Loon’s custom software service for managing its LTE balloon fleet be put to use controlling Telesat’s new constellation of low Earth orbit satellites.
It’s part of Loon’s realization that no one solution will get internet everywhere across the globe and that its technology can benefit a major player in an industry it once viewed as a potential competitor.

Telesat is launching a state-of-the-art satellite constellation of highly advanced satellites in low-earth-orbit (~1,000 km from earth; ~35 times closer than traditional satellites) that will seamlessly integrate with terrestrial networks.
The global network will deliver fiber quality throughput (Gbps links; low latency) anywhere on earth.
This is a highly flexible system that dynamically allocates capacity where there’s demand, thus maximizing system efficiency.

“The opportunity is bigger than any one of us,” says Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth, who explains that Loon came to learn that the solutions to some of its biggest hurdles were not just about developing better technology, but also about finding the right partners.
“During that learning process, we decided that we needed to seek collaboration.” While Loon has worked closely with telecoms to source internet access for its balloon networks in foreign countries, the company has never before licensed out proprietary technology as a packaged software service.

The partnership will bring Loon a new line of revenue, turning its software for controlling non-stationary aerial networks into a viable product for the satellite industry, which is now eyeing the lower portion of Earth’s atmosphere as a lucrative and untapped market.
Loon has spent a majority of its existence as an Alphabet-funded project developing this software, and it’s become an instrumental system for controlling the network traffic for Loon’s LTE service in areas like Brazil, Peru, and elsewhere around the globe where the company has performed field tests.

As a result of its successful work around the globe, and in helping bring Puerto Rico back online after Hurricane Maria, Loon has become increasingly focused on becoming a proper business, too.
Loon started life as one of Google’s moonshot projects, like the Waymo self-driving car program, but it was spun out into a standalone company under Alphabet last year, roughly a year and a half after Westgarth, a telecom industry veteran, took over as CEO.

Yet, Alphabet’s more experimental businesses cost it billions of dollars per year, and as a result, the companies that get spun out come under pressure to prove their worth and turn a profit.
At Access, the telecom unit that encompasses Google Fiber, and drone delivery outfit Project Wing, executive turnover has been frequent, while smart home company Nest has lost both its co-founders and was folded back into Google last year.
Alphabet’s solar-powered internet drone division, once a kind of sister project to Loon, was shut down in 2017.
Loon, however, remains one of the rare Alphabet companies now plotting a clear path toward becoming a viable, self-sustaining venture.

 source : Alphabet

The Telesat partnership is the second commercial deal for Loon, after the company announced plans to help expand mobile networks for smartphone users in Kenya earlier this year.
Broadly speaking, these are Loon’s first steps in commercially addressing what it sees as a global hurdle for connecting the planet.
Around 3.5 billion people, or a bit under half the world’s population, don’t have access to the internet, according to the 2018 Global Digital report.

As it stands today, current options for bringing remote areas online, like geostationary satellites that sit more than 20,000 miles above the surface, provide ample coverage area, but suffer from high-latency and sluggish connection speeds.
They’re also immensely difficult and expensive to maintain.
For companies like Loon and Telesat, newer solutions ranging from satellites in low Earth orbit — a more cost-effective and lower latency portion of space — to stratospheric balloons and airships are necessary to begin bridging the gap.
And it’s no longer about providing a single, one-size-fits-all solution, but a patchwork of different approaches all targeting different segments of the connectivity problem.

Not only is internet access critical to upward mobility in developing countries, but its lack of availability is also an impediment to the future success of a Silicon Valley giant like Google.
While Google is technically another Alphabet subsidiary, many of the companies outside the Google bubble can be seen as pursuing goals that the search giant stands to benefit from.
And Alphabet as a whole can only grow and continue thriving — and writing the healthy paychecks that keep the lights on at companies like Loon — if more internet users come online and start using ad-supported web services like Google search and Gmail.

Going forward, Westgarth says Loon will continue to push more of its technology into the commercial space and telecom sectors, as it sees fit.
“As we develop a capability — some intellectual property or some tech applicable outside Loon — we will make a determination,” he says.
“Do we commercialize it? If yes, how do we find a partner and license it?”

Because balloons move, the network of links between them must change constantly in order to deliver sustained connectivity below.

The tech being licensed to Telesat is what Loon is calling a “temporal-spatial” SDN, short for software-defined network.
It was developed to manage Loon’s fleet of LTE balloons using learnings from Google’s years of experience building custom data center architectures and management tools.

Such a technology was needed because Loon’s balloons shift in the sky depending on weather conditions, the locations of other balloons, the direction each balloon is facing, and a number of other factors that influence the stability of the network and its connection to people’s smartphones on the ground.
At any given moment, Loon’s software is automatically adjusting the shape of the network to manage the data passing between each node and ultimately beaming down to and up from the surface of the Earth.

In a normal cell network, the cell towers are stationary, and “you’re the only thing moving around,” explains Sal Candido, Loon’s head of engineering.
With Loon, however, “it was pretty apparent early on that our towers would be moving around.” According to Candido, there didn’t exist a technology that could manage such a complex task.
So Loon decided to build it.

The task was not easy — Loon’s LTE balloons operate at around 20 kilometers, or more than 65,000 feet, in the sky.
They cannot be adjusted on the fly; you can’t send a technician into the stratosphere to fiddle with the balloon’s antennas.
So the team began researching the way aerospace networks were first set up by organizations like NASA.
It’s something Loon’s Brian Barritt, a networking expert and former consultant for the NASA Glenn Research Center, had unique insight into.

“A lot of this started off with a general solution trying to support many different types of aerospace networks.
We looked at a lot of things...
planes, satellites,” says Barritt, who joined Google in 2014 and now acts as the technical lead for the temporal-spatial SDN product.
“From the start, we were trying to build something that would solve this class of problem: a high-throughput network where people are moving and the network is moving.”

The result was an unprecedented network architecture, or what the Loon team nicknamed “Minkowski,” after the German mathematician Hermann Minkowski that translated Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity into a geometric representation of space-time.
Its unique characteristic is that it uses software to virtually control a network that shifts both in its physical orientation and across time simultaneously, all while the physical recipients of the connection are also moving on the ground, on a ship at sea, or even on an airplane traveling 550 mph.

To connect the balloons together in any given deployment area, Loon needs to set up a communication link between a ground station and one of its vehicles.
The custom software system then transfers that link to other balloons using a set of three antennas affixed to rotating gimbals on each balloon’s payload.
That payload also holds the networking hardware, helium source, and the means by which the balloon can stay powered in the air using a mix of solar energy and batteries.

The SDN manages that whole process by predicting which balloons will handle which requests and how best to send that data across the network.
It then automates the morphing of the “topology” of the network, essentially its physical arrangement, as well as scheduling those changes multiple minutes out and predicting how it will need to adjust going forward.
In that way, a Loon network can reliably mimic a terrestrial LTE one, even as it floats in the sky.
Back in September of last year, Loon announced it was able to string one such connection across seven balloons spanning 621 miles, a feat that would have been impossible without the aid of Minkowski.

The visual interface of Loon’s temporal-spatial SDN software that Telesat will use to manage low Earth orbit satellites.

In developing the software, Loon discovered that the product could be especially useful to satellite companies that are expanding into low Earth orbit, where satellites shift around in space.
Because they’re closer to the surface of the planet, these satellites can provide faster connections, and they’re also cheaper to launch.
But that area of the atmosphere requires that the satellites, like the International Space Station, constantly orbit the Earth to avoid reentry.

In that way, LEO satellites start to resemble Loon balloons, although they’re much, much higher in the sky.
(An LEO satellite sits approximately 35 times closer to the Earth than a standard geostationary one, but roughly 50 to 100 times higher than a Loon balloon.) “The same type of technology we used to manage the mobility of the balloon makes a ton of sense for these non-geostationary satellite constellations,” explains Candido.

Telesat doesn’t plan to beam down LTE to your average smartphone user, at least not in the near-term.
Instead, the company plans to use its LEO satellites primarily to provide connections to remote areas of Earth, such as research vessels in the ocean and cruise ships as well as for in-flight Wi-Fi and other forms of midflight satellite connections.
(Interestingly, Telesat is partnering with Amazon’s Blue Origin to launch its LEO satellites, whereas Alphabet is an investor in SpaceX, both a Blue Origin competitor for space travel and Telesat competitor due to SpaceX’s planned Starlink constellation.)

But for Loon, this is a first step in helping position its technology to bring universal, global connectivity closer to reality.
One day in the future, Barritt envisions these stratospheric internet stations could become the backbone of a new kind of aerial internet infrastructure.
“They could be used to handle urban densification, to work with satellites and different generation of Loon balloons, high-altitude solar gliders or airships,” he says.
“All interoperable.”

Of course, in that vision of the future, it’s Loon software that becomes the glue that holds it all together.
It’s a fittingly optimistic dream for a former moonshot project of Alphabet’s X lab that, all these years later, looks like it’s finally gotten off the ground.

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