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Friday, 26 April 2019

Tech: SoftBank teams up with Alphabet’s Loon for web in the sky

Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank Corp has launched a new high-altitude platform station business through HAPSMobile, a joint venture with US firm AeroVironment. This business aims to deliver global internet connectivity through a fleet of unmanned aircraft – the Hawk30, shown here – that will fly in the Earth's stratosphere. Photo: Handout
Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank Corp has launched a new high-altitude platform station business through HAPSMobile, a joint venture with US firm AeroVironment. This business aims to deliver global internet connectivity through a fleet of unmanned aircraft – the Hawk30, shown here – that will fly in the Earth's stratosphere. Photo: Handout
One of the most improbable ideas from Google’s eccentric co-founders – using high-altitude balloons to provide internet connections – is getting a boost from another unconventional technology mogul.
An affiliate of Masayoshi Son’s telecommunications company SoftBank Corp is investing US$125 million in Loon, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet. The SoftBank unit and Loon will share technology and ground stations, and form “an alliance to promote the use of high-altitude communications solutions with regulators and officials worldwide”, according to a statement from the two companies.
The deal gives the SoftBank affiliate, HAPSMobile, an undisclosed minority stake in Loon. In the future, Loon has the right to invest US$125 million in the unit, a joint venture between SoftBank and US firm AeroVironment that designs unmanned aircraft systems. The partnership will initially target service in countries near the equator, eyeing proximity to developing markets as well as abundant solar energy.
SoftBank, one of Japan’s largest wireless network operators, began exploring alternatives to terrestrial antennae after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami knocked out a broad swathe of its network.
Masayoshi Son, the founder and chief executive of Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group Corp, is betting on Loon, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, to help advance the company’s new business in high-altitude telecommunications systems. Photo: Reuters

Masayoshi Son, the founder and chief executive of Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group Corp, is betting on Loon, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, to help advance the company’s new business in high-altitude telecommunications systems. Photo: Reuters

While the idea of using aircraft as a flying base station has been around for decades, it was only this year that the efficiency of solar panels and battery capacity have advanced enough to make that practical, SoftBank chief technology officer Junichi Miyakawa said.
“Making better use of the stratosphere is a huge challenge for humanity,” Miyakawa told a briefing in Tokyo on Thursday. “Above the clouds, the sunlight is plentiful. The air is thin and the winds are mild.”
The Hawk 30 aircraft developed by HAPSMobile has a wingspan of 78 metres, 10 propellers and can travel at speeds of up to 110 kilometres an hour. It will eventually operate at an altitude of 20 kilometres for six months at a time, Miyakawa said.
SoftBank and Loon plan to offer connectivity services to telecoms carriers in countries where building a physical network is difficult. SoftBank will offer terrestrial gateway stations for Loon’s balloons starting this year, before introducing its own aircraft in 2023. The network could also make use of low-Earth-orbit satellites operated by OneWeb, a SoftBank Vision Fund portfolio company.
Visitors stand next to a high-altitude internet-beaming balloon developed by Loon, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, on display at the Air Force Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, on June 16, 2013. Photo: Agence France-Presse

Visitors stand next to a high-altitude internet-beaming balloon developed by Loon, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, on display at the Air Force Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, on June 16, 2013. Photo: Agence France-Presse

Loon, which began in the Google X “moonshot lab”, retreated from an initial plan to blanket the globe with its internet-beaming, stratospheric helium-filled balloons. Instead, it has been negotiating more targeted deals with industry partners, including a telecoms company in Kenya and satellite firm in Canada. Facebook last year decided to shut down its own programme, called Aquila, after about four years in development.
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin formed the Alphabet holding company in 2015 to give newer, riskier projects more room to grow away from the main Google digital advertising operation. Some of these emerging businesses have taken investments from other companies in their industries. Verily, a health-technology unit, has raised nearly US$2 billion in outside funding. Calico, a bold attempt to thwart death, has teamed up with pharmaceutical giant AbbVie, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the initiative.
HAPSMobile, which is 90 per cent owned by SoftBank, was created in January 2018 to develop solar-powered high-altitude unmanned aircraft and ground control stations. AeroVironment controls the remaining 10 per cent and has exclusive rights to design and manufacture all such aircraft in the future.
AeroVironment’s experience with high-altitude long-endurance aircraft dates back to the 90s, building prototypes for Nasa and the Pentagon. According to the company’s presentation materials to investors in June 2018, it targeted HAPS demonstration and certification starting next financial year.
The aircraft developed by HAPSMobile costs about as much as 10 Ferraris, but the price should fall with volume, Miyakawa said. A network would need 10 to 20 such aircraft to start with, requiring an investment of around US$10 million per country, he said.


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