Alphabet spin-off Loon, which relies on high-altitude balloons and drones to provide wireless internet service to terrestrial users, has snagged $125 million in investment from Softbank joint venture HAPSMobile.
The companies say that they are “actively exploring commercial collaborations to accelerate the deployment of high altitude network connectivity solutions, with a focus on expanding mobile internet penetration, enabling internet of things applications, and assisting in the deployment of 5G.”
As part of the deal, Loon has the right to invest $125 million in HAPSMobile in the future. HAPSMobile is a joint venture between Softbank and California-based company AeroVironment; Softbank owns 95% of the JV, which was formed in late 2017 to develop solar-powered high-altitude long-endurance, or HALE, unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial operations; HALEs are also known as high-altitude pseudo-satellites, or HAPS. AeroVironment said that it has completed development of Hawk 30, which it describes as an “aircraft-type stratospheric telecommunications platform.” The company has a history of developing drones for NASA.
Loon said that it brings technical leadership to the partnership through an its own high-altitude vehicle and communications system, which it said has flown more 30 million kilometers and “connected hundreds of thousands of users worldwide.”
“Building a telecommunications network in the stratosphere, which has not been utilized by humankind so far, is uncharted territory and a major challenge for SoftBank,” said Junichi Miyakawa, representative director and CTO of SoftBank, who also serves as president and CEO of HAPSMobile. He added that by working with Loon, he is “confident we can accelerate the path toward the realization of utilizing the stratosphere for global networks by pooling our technologies, insights and experience. Even in this current era of coming 5G services, we cannot ignore the reality that roughly half of the world’s population is without Internet access. Through HAPS, we aim to eliminate the digital divide and provide people around the world with the innovative network services that they need.”
Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth said that his company sees working with Softbank and HAPSMobile as “an opportunity to develop an entire industry, one which holds the promise to bring connectivity to parts of the world no one thought possible. This is the beginning of a long-term relationship based on a shared vision for expanding connectivity to those who need it. We look forward to what the future holds.”
The three companies are also in formal negotiations on potential areas of collaboration, from a wholesale business that would allow HAPSMobile to utilize Loon’s vehicles and tech while Loon leverages HAPSMobile’s aircraft; a “jointly developed communications payload that is adaptable to multiple flight vehicles and various ITU compliant frequency bands”; common gateways or ground stations; enabling flight vehicles from each company to connect to and share network connectivity; and “creating an alliance to promote the use of high altitude communications solutions with regulators and officials worldwide.”