Alphabet's internet balloons just got a big upgrade

X, the moonshot tech division of Google’s parent company Alphabet, says it’s getting closer to its dream of delivering the internet to rural areas from high-altitude balloons.

X announced Thursday that Project Loon, its internet balloon project, has a new set of navigation algorithms that will allow the balloons to cluster together and beam the internet to a concentrated area in need. Before, the plan was to have Loon balloons spread across the globe, with one balloon replacing another that drifts off.

But X now says it has implemented new algorithms powered by machine learning techniques to guide the balloons into clusters, taking advantage of wind pattern data and other factors. Project Loon balloons can now be sent to an area that needs internet access within weeks instead of months, X says.

Here’s how the Loon balloons used to navigate:

Now, they will navigate in clusters, which is more efficient, according to X:

Despite the upgrade, Project Loon is likely several years away from a commercial launch. In its announcement, X only said it was “years closer.” The division is still housed within X, with the goal to spin out into its own company once it becomes clear there’s a path to build a real business around it. Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car company, is X’s most recent graduate. It spun out in December.

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