Drones and Balloons: COWs and COLTs Out, Loon and Similar Ideas In

Carl Weinschenk

Look! Up in the Sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a stationary balloon or drone capable of providing low-cost and backup voice and data services!

A post credited to Google’s “Astro Teller,” actually, Eric Teller, explains a breakthrough by Project Loon, which is an initiative from Google’s “X” division that aims to use balloons to provide voice and data coverage to rural areas.

Initially, the plan was to create a ring of balloons around the globe. Each moves through an area, providing services as it does so. The new approach is to cluster balloons over a region. This greatly simplifies the overall task:

We’ll be able to put together a Loon network over a particular region in weeks not months, and it would be a lot less work to launch and manage. We’ll reduce the number of balloons we need and get greater value out of each one.


This, Teller writes, reduces costs, which is the rationale for Loon in the first place. Google abandoned a drone-based concept, Project Titan, last year but only made the decision known last month.

Project Loon – Google didn’t help build the case for its reasonableness with the name it chose – is not the only project based on the basic concept. The Guardian today reported that mobile carrier EE is deploying a fleet of blimps to be used as voice and data backup systems in the UK. The “helikites” will start launching this year. EE, The Guardian says, also has a project featuring drones that is earlier in the development cycle.

The drone approach is gaining altitude. Recode reports that CyPhy Works is developing PARC, a tethered drone that can provide connectivity. The approach is far less expensive than cells on wheels or cells on light trucks (COWs and COLTs), which are the current earthbound tools to bolster connectivity at venues or in emergency situations.

There are three basic uses for drones or balloons: to provide backup services in case of disaster; to supplement services at high use times, such as during popular sporting events; and to offer service economically to rural areas. It is possible that specific approaches may be better in different cases. The bottom line is that Project Loon and the other initiatives are very sane ideas indeed.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.


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