Google AI is now piloting Loon’s internet-beaming balloons

Alphabet’s Loon has shifted to a different type of navigation system for its internet-beaming balloons. Rather than relying on algorithms designed by humans, the balloons are using an artificial intelligence system Loon developed with Google AI over the last few years. 



a person flying through the air on top of a mountain: Loon balloon in flight


© Loon
Loon balloon in flight

A reinforcement learning (RL) system is now in charge of navigation for a fleet of balloons over Kenya, where Loon switched on its first commercial service earlier this year. Loon says this is the first use of an RL model in “a production aerospace system.” It also noted the “development is exciting because it shows that reinforcement learning can be applied to real-world use cases.” RL systems have previously figured out how to beat top Go and Dota 2 players.

Loon’s AI can figure out the optimal route for balloons significantly faster than the previous navigation system. It does so with more efficiency

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New AI-Based Navigation Helps Loon’s Balloons Hover in Place

Candido and his team have been working on this problem for several years, since the company was first launched as part of the Google X research lab in 2012. Loon is now a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet.

The big advancement since then has been applying reinforcement learning, something previously used in video games, to a real-world challenge, according to Marc Bellemare, lead author on the Nature paper and a research scientist at Google Canada. “Machine learning refers to the idea of taking data and making predictions about outcomes,” Bellemare says. “With reinforcement learning we are focusing on the decision part. How do we go up or down based on that data? Not only is [the AI controller] making decisions, but making decisions over time.”

Some experts believe the AI-powered balloons can also be used to monitor Earth’s environmental vital signs, such as checking on melting in the Arctic

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