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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Google Pioneered Stratospheric Loon Balloons. Was China Watching?

Earlier this week The New York Times published a story about Wu Zhe, a Chinese scientist who is the alleged mastermind of his nation’s balloon surveillance program. You may have noticed that Chinese spy balloons have been in the news because one of those near-space visitors meandered over the US for days until Joe Biden ordered it shot down. The Times reporters documented a series of triumphant announcements of the achievements of Wu’s team, the Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group. (No relation to the team that just lost the Super Bowl, in part due to a marginal holding call.)

In 2015, The People’s Daily celebrated the Chinese team’s accomplishment in sending an airship that stayed aloft at 65,000 feet, a feat that required advanced materials in the balloon’s skin. In 2019, professor Wu said that for the first time EMAST had “acquired a signal from between Earth and near space.” Also that year, Wu did a presentation for the Southern Daily newspaper about a flight in progress that he claimed was “the first time an aerodynamically controlled stratospheric airship has flown around the world at 20,000 meters.” And last year Wu boasted about a plan to have three high-altitude balloons in the air form an “airborne network," moving toward what he described as the ultimate example of Chinese mastery, an ongoing near-space web of steerable balloons circling the Earth.

When Mike Cassidy read the story, he just about busted a gut. Before he left Alphabet in 2017, he was in charge of a project called Loon, which aimed to provide internet access to underserved regions via stratospheric balloons. Loon began inside the company’s X “moonshot” lab and later “graduated” to become a separate unit.

First announced in 2013 with a public demonstration in New Zealand, Loon had long ago met and surpassed every single allegedly groundbreaking milestone Wu was bragging about. Altitude? Using specially fabricated materials for its skin, Loon had no problem sustaining heights above 60,000 feet. Circumnavigating the globe? Cassidy says “At least one of our balloons went around the world 14 times,” contributing to a total of over 40 million kilometers in the air. Networking three balloons? “At one point we had several dozen in the air at the same time,” Cassidy says. All of them networked. What made the Loon balloons even more impressive was how much they were able to steer themselves by taking advantage of AI-powered predictions of wind currents, informed by real-time government weather data. Armed with that data, the balloons could autonomously change altitude to find a favorable wind direction. And it was all controlled by software that could be operated by a staffer’s laptop or cell phone. 

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Alphabet pulled the plug on Loon in early 2021. It was a business decision, not a reflection on the technology—basically, its mission became moot as remote areas managed to get connected without receiving signals from the mutant offspring of Phileas Fogg. Still, the Loon team working in partnership with a company called Raven Aerostar (more recently the Aerostar division was sold off from Raven)—which had spent decades in balloon technology—can boast that it pushed balloon tech to, um, new heights. “We advanced the technology significantly,” says Cassidy. This point was missed by many pundits commenting on the Chinese spy ship. “Everyone you talk to after the Chinese spy story is saying you can’t fly a balloon halfway around the world and put it where you want,” says Aerostar’s vice president of stratospheric solutions, Russ Van Der Werff. “We do that every week.”

That led me to wonder, could it be that X’s advances might have informed, if not directly aided, the technology Wu and his team used to allegedly send that balloon on its controversial and ultimately doomed journey across the United States? The US is clearly motivated to slow the progress of the People’s Republic of China’s near-space surveillance program. Toward that end, Joe Biden has just blackballed six Chinese companies suspected of contributing to it. But maybe they got some of their best ideas from US companies for free.

I want to be clear: There’s no evidence that the advances in balloon technology made by Alphabet helped the Chinese spy effort. Not surprisingly, no one at Alphabet or Aerostar wants to go near this question. But if the PRC was paying attention in the past decade, it could have learned all sorts of successful conceptual approaches—and even some great details—from the X division’s extensive explanations of how it created, controlled, and managed its fleet of balloons. Knowing China’s penchant for monitoring Western technology, it’s almost inconceivable that Wu and his team haven’t followed the Loon project. And If Wu is correct about the dates of China’s breakthroughs, they all came after Loon and Aerostar solved a lot of problems for what are called “high altitude platform stations.”

“Ten years ago it wasn’t even a pipe dream to have balloons that last hundreds of days, in the hardest part of the stratosphere, that could change altitude and keep on station for months,” says Lon Stroschein, a former Raven Aerostar executive who worked on the Loon partnership. “Now we have them, and we were decades ahead of everything else. But if the Chinese have more technology than we expected, and they’re able to survive in the stratosphere and can change altitudes, we’re in trouble.” 

As it turns out, recent reporting indicates that the Chinese airship wiped out by a Sidewinder missile was a “broken arrow”—a balloon that floated free of mission control and went off on its own after snooping on Guam and Hawaii. This would indicate that China has a lot of work to do. One potentially invaluable resource might be the Loon Library, a 432-page archive of technical material that Alphabet released when Loon went offline in 2021. This is part of the Loon Collection, which includes flight data from nearly 2,100 flights and a 134-slide technical overview. Shared in the feel-good spirit of open-sourcing, the collection is full of detail-rich documents and technical information. It’s great for everyone that Alphabet shares what it learned after shutting down a project. But everyone includes people on all sides of global rivalries.

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“When you put information out publicly, people can use it for good or bad reasons,” says Cassidy. “Obviously, Google’s intent was to advance science and technology around the world. But anytime you put stuff out like that, people can do things that you don’t want them to do.”

And that goes for both sides of the new cold war. Last year Aerostar was snapped up by a defense contractor called TCOM Holdings. It describes itself as offering “Multi-Domain Awareness solutions for Force Protection, Distant Warning and Targeting, Critical Infrastructure and Maritime and Border Security missions.” While Aerostar has many clients, most prominently NASA, it also does work for the military and Homeland Security, some of it classified. Its balloons, for instance, were used in a 2019 test that sent six spy balloons over the Midwest “to provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic traffic and homeland security threats.” The technology in those snooping airships undoubtedly benefited from the partnership with Loon; Aerostar acquired Loon patents after X discontinued the project.

It’s still not certain whether—or how much—Loon technology has helped the Chinese, but Googlers, and all of us, should note that the fruits of a project designed to give internet access to the underserved might now be feeding very different appetites. Technology’s double-edged sword is often its bane.

Time Travel

When I broke the news about the Loon project in 2013, one part of my story described how Google’s X division (as it was then known) ran a series of test flights while still figuring out how to steer the balloons. They’d then try to recover them. By the way, Mike Cassidy assured me that Google always alerted the authorities when balloons were aloft, so no one was urging then-president Obama to shoot them down. 

Google learned a great deal from data accumulated in its tests, especially as it equipped balloons with sensors to measure pressure, temperature, and other factors. (The current version transmits 189 types of data.) But this required retrieving them. When a balloon failed, or when Google decided to take one down, a trigger mechanism on top would deflate it and release a parachute. Most of the earlier flights wound up in farmland. The ex-military hires dutifully traversed rough terrain, even climbing mountains, to retrieve the payloads. After one unexpectedly circuitous recovery mission, the X-ers sent a huffy correction to the Google Maps team.

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Sometimes baffled observers would chance upon downed balloons before the recovery team arrived. Google prepared for that too. The payload bore a bold-face assurance that this was a harmless science experiment and listed a contact number for "Paul," who would provide a reward. In the course of about 200 tests, Google recovered all but two balloons. In one case someone just didn't make the call. (Google identified the balloon's location by GPS but didn't want to approach the finder and risk exposure of the secret project.) The second was the shimmering UFO that caused a stir in Kentucky. After 11 days aloft, it wound up in Canada.

While the tests proceeded, the team created control software. The first version was codenamed Vulcan, later replaced by an all-in-one operations system dubbed Mission Control. It analyzes NOAA wind data (both the current status and historical records) and uses Google's computational horsepower to plot an ideal course. (It takes about 15 minutes of crunching numbers on Google's vast server network to chart a week's flight.) Mission Control also directs the balloons to the proper altitude, tracks their nervous system and location, and displays the progress and paths of every balloon on a map. What's more, it can alert local air traffic controllers that the rising or falling blip on their screen is benign. The Loon team can access the web-based system from any computer or tablet.

Ask Me One Thing

Jerry writes, “I have an entrepreneurial idea that I think would be revolutionary—the ability to direct cellphone data feeds (email, Twitter, Facebook …) to a personal ChatGPT bot. Not only would it free up tremendous amounts of time for people to do other things (like read your books), but the ChatGPT to ChatGPT conversation loops should provide an endless resource for academic scholars. What do you think?”

Thanks, Jerry. Anything that gives people more time to read my books is worth looking at. But before you seek a patent on your idea, let me warn you that there are undoubtedly already plenty of people thinking of chatbot to chatbot communication. As we sharpen our skills in prompting these chatty knowledge engines, we’ll increasingly seek advice from the bots themselves. And rather than endure increasingly tedious conversations with AI know-it-alls, we’ll probably want to automate the process of decoding their verbose output too, letting bots talk amongst themselves until they agree on what information is really useful to us. If we’re lucky, they’ll share it with us so we can fact-check it.

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And while you’re right that scholars might find these bot-to-bot conversations interesting, academics  should be worried that the papers that result from those fascinating dialogues might themselves be generated by bots. So many, in fact, that we will have to ask the bots to read them for us and extract the best ideas. I bet they come up with some good ones!

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

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