In 2017, after four years of setbacks and crashes, Alphabet shut its project flying solar-powered fixed-wing drones in the upper atmosphere to beam the internet to those cut-off, according to IDTechEx.
Alphabet, parent of Google, has also dumped its ‘Loon’ upper-atmosphere balloon version, which was intended to bring cellular connectivity to remote parts of the world.
Facebook then exited its similar project, but the Chinese aerospace industry, Airbus, Boeing, and NASA are progressing.
The Chinese solar Mei Ying drone can survive night and day at the weaker light at 4600 metres, where it is used to quickly establish a WiFi emergency network and to conduct surveillance in remote regions. It is expected to be able to team with future 6G upper-atmosphere drones and low-earth-orbit LEO satellites.
“The road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped. So we’ve made the difficult decision to close down Loon,” Astro Teller, who heads X, the Alphabet subsidiary, said.
The Loon helium-filled balloons were powered by solar panels and guided by artificial intelligence, transmitting internet signals to ground stations and personal devices. The first commercial use was in 2020 with Telkom Kenya, when 35 balloons were deployed to provide a 4G LTE network connection to Nairobi.
A competing inflatable is the Stratobus unmanned airship under development by Lockheed Martin and Thales Alenia Space in cooperation with the French defence procurement agency DGA. The Stratobus is expected to compete with LEO satellites by holding a steady position and carrying over ten times the payload at a lower cost.
Early this year, Thales Alenia Space and Thales signed a contract with DGA for a concept study of the platform’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance applications. The first flight is expected in 2023.
“6G communications may become an even bigger business than the 5G that is now rolling out worldwide,” Raghu Das, CEO of analysts IDTechEx, said. “The Chinese have just sent up a satellite to study 6G physics in the simple environment of space. This is virgin territory.”