The Federal Communications Commission has approved an application from Alphabet — Google’s parent company — to fly Project Loon balloons over Puerto Rico in an effort to provide emergency cell coverage to the island, according to Reuters.
Puerto Rico is still reeling in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which struck the island on Sept. 20 and paralyzing winds, rain and storm surge. When it hit, it was nearly a category 5 storm, and pummeled the island with gusts and rains for more than 30 hours.
Two weeks later, most of the island still doesn’t have power or clean water. And for large portions of the island, cell coverage is still a pipe dream, too.
But that could change now that Google has the go-ahead to launch 30 balloons over Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Wired reports, for as long as half a year. Those balloons would aim to make up for the thousands of cellphone towers that the storm were rendered useless.
On Friday, 83 percent of the island’s cell sites were out of service, according to the FCC — down only slightly from 84.6 percent the day before. The area around San Juan, the capital, is where the best cell service appears to be.
The Loon Balloons Google is planning to deploy feature the key elements of a cell tower, but are re-imagined so they can be fastened to a balloon and survive 12 miles into the stratosphere, according to Google. Solar panels provide the balloons and tech equipment with the power they need by day, while a battery is used at night.
The project was initially announced in 2013, intending to use balloons at high altitudes — and powered by the sun — to get cell service and internet capabilities into remote areas.
By using multiple balloons that float through the air, cell users’ signals can jump from one balloon to the next as they move in the sky, according to Paul Frey, the project’s head of hardware engineering.
And according to Wired, those balloons could begin providing emergency service any day now.
The technology was put to use in May in Peru to provide internet service, after extreme rains led to catastrophic flooding, according to Google.
“This is the first time that balloon powered internet has connected tens of thousands of people,” Alastair Westgarth, head of Project Loon, wrote on the project’s blog. “More than 160 GB of data has been sent to people over a combined area of 40,000km2 — that’s roughly the size of Switzerland — and enough data to send and receive around 30 million WhatsApp messages, or 2 million emails.”