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Did Google Really Steal The Idea For ‘Project Loon’ Balloons? Here Are The Facts Behind The Accusation

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Google has been known over the years for developing big ideas such as its plans to provide internet access to remote areas via giant balloons. But another company is bursting Google's bubble and accusing it of stealing the idea for Project Loon.

The Arizona-based technology company Space Data Corporation filed a lawsuit this week in the U.S. District Court for Northern California, claiming that Google's parent company, Alphabet, is infringing on its patents — which it did not license — and broke a non-disclosure agreement to use information it previously shared.

The patent infringement suit names Google, Alphabet and its research arm Google X.

Both are some serious allegations that deflate the excitement surrounding the ingenuity of Project Loon.

Space Data was founded in 1997 and has developed a balloon-based telecommunications system prior to Project Loon that essentially does the same thing: provide wireless voice and data services which it can do through a constellation of 70 balloons.

The company calls its balloon products SkySat and SkySite, which hover at altitudes between 60,000 and 100,000 feet in the air in the stratosphere to provide personal communication services in areas like Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. Space Data is also testing 4G on its SkySite platform.

In fact, it has two patents on its product: one filed in 1999 titled "Airborne constellation of communication platforms and method" that includes how connectivity is possible through the balloons, and the second filed in 2001 titled "Unmanned lighter-than-air safe termination and recovery methods" for shutting down service and recovering the balloons.

Then there's Project Loon, developed by Google X, which is pretty much the same thing but was only developed after Space Data's project. The goal of Project Loon is to provide 4G-LTE wireless network services to be used in locations that don't have access to internet such as in rural areas, or remote locations. The balloons can also be used after a natural disaster to get people back online.

A pilot test of the project launched in New Zealand back in 2013. Loon balloons are also being tested in Australia and Indonesia and Google announced in February that it will test a constellation of 15 balloons in Sri Lanka.

Google has its own patent for its Loon balloons titled "Terrestrial unit for connectivity to a balloon network."

As for the whole non-disclosure agreement business, in December 2007, Google signed an agreement to keep talks between the two companies confidential. The lawsuit cites examples of confidential information and trade secrets that include "accumulation of weather data, launch methods, launch timing, balloon types, altitude regulation, business methods, business models, financial information, technology solutions, and unique knowledge and interpretation of weather data ..."

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin then visited the Space Data offices on Feb. 15, 2008 where they were given demo of the tech. But then a few days later, Space Data alleged that it received an email from Google saying that it will "not engage in further discussion with Space Data."

This came after an article was published in the Wall Street Journal that featured a source claiming Google had interest in buying the company.

After the relationship was cut off, Google began working on Project Loon.

Coincidence? We'll let the court decide.

Source: The Verge

Photo: Global Panorama | Flickr

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