Alphabet’s long-gestating Loon project reached a major milestone today when the company officially launched its first-ever commercial service as its balloons took flight over Kenya. Loon, which uses weather balloons to deliver internet connectivity to remote areas, launched balloons over Kenya as part of a partnership with Telkom Kenya.

The achievement is a noteworthy step for Alphabet, which has often talked in grandiose terms about developing “moonshots” but has struggled to turn projects like autonomous vehicles into commercial products. In this case, the Loon breakthrough is also a significant symbolic victory for companies like Alphabet and Facebook’s efforts to extend internet connectivity to remote populations via a mixture of balloons and drones.

Originally dubbed Project Loon, Loon began as an experiment at Google back in 2011 and gradually evolved before being spun out into a standalone company. In early 2009, Loon created an advisory board of telecom insiders in an effort to accelerate its commercial ambitions.

Using balloons that travel 20km above the sea, Loon is able to network a constellation of balloons using algorithms that track their movements and distance to maintain delivery of internet connections.

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The company had originally announced the Kenyan partnership back in 2018, with hopes of launching service commercially last year, but various delays caused it to be pushed back to this month. The Kenyan government formally approved the service last month, which set up a race to get things off the ground, a task made more complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The balloons are launched from sites in Puerto Rico and Nevada. For today’s kickoff, that meant the Loon team had to get them in the air and then navigate them to Kenya, which is about 11,000km away.

According to a blog post by Loon CTO Salvatore Candido, the system uses software to automatically create a map that optimizes the flight path based on weather forecasts and can be continually adjusted. Each balloon takes a unique route to its final destination.

In the past year, the company made significant improvements to that navigation system after logging more than 1 million flight hours. Using machine learning, the system discovered that flying in zig-zag patterns was often more efficient than flying straight toward a destination. And flying in figure eight patterns rather than circles helps the balloons remain over a given area for a longer period of time.

While a ground crew still monitors the system, Loon’s ability to automate and rapidly learn from environmental conditions has proven critical in making the service commercially viable.

“The Loon team is excited to bring service to people in places that previously had little or no connectivity in Kenya,” Candido said. “As I’ve often said, people have much more important needs than the internet — if you can bring folks food, clean water, or medical supplies, do that first. But as humanity copes with the COVID-19 pandemic and we find ourselves physically distancing from our friends, colleagues, and family, it is our ability to stay in touch online that is keeping us informed, together, and connected.”