Alphabet's Project Loon internet balloon effort just made a major breakthrough

Fewer balloons is a good thing

Quite a few major tech companies are looking at ways to beam internet down from the sky, and even space. One of those is Alphabet, Google's parent company, and today an intriguing and important breakthrough in an ongoing attempt to deliver internet to hard-to-reach places was revealed.

Project Loon, started by Google before it became Alphabet, intends to provide internet access with giant floating balloons. The initial idea was to have groups of balloons sail around the world, largely at the whimsy of the wind but, when they could, linger over a particular region. 

Now, according to Astro Teller, the head of Alphabet's moonshot programs, the team behind Project Loon has developed a machine learning-powered navigation algorithm that allows them to send "small teams of balloons" to cluster above a certain area - and stay there. 

Instead of blankets of balloons being ushered away by the breeze, these groups can "dance on the winds in small loops to remain where needed."

The development is far from perfect, Teller writes in a blog post, but he notes it's a "positive sign for Loon's economic and operational viability."

With the improvement, a balloon network can get up and running in remote or rural places in a matter of weeks, and the effort to oversee the network would be much less challenging. Not as many balloons would be needed either, reducing costs across the board. 

All this means more reliable internet could be delivered on a much faster timescale to the farthest reaches of the Earth, a huge step towards making global connections a reality.