Most of a key Project Loon patent has been cancelled by the US Patent and Trademark Office after another company succeeded in convincing the agency that it came up with the idea first.
Project Loon uses free-floating balloons to provide Internet access to remote areas, beaming down Wi-Fi from overhead. The patent which has been cancelled relates to how Alphabet steers the balloons …
As the balloons drift in the wind, and have no form of propulsion, they would normally move in whatever direction the winds happened to carry them. Google’s patent was for increasing or decreasing the altitude of the balloons until they hit winds travelling in the desired direction. Most recently, the company planned to use this approach to keep balloons effectively hovering in place.
Wired reports that a small company called Space Data argued that they came up with the idea first, filing its own application more than a decade before Alpha.
Filings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) show that in 2000, Space Data began experimenting with a nationwide paging service from high-altitude balloons. Space Data filed its key patent application in 2001, and quickly went on to test text messages in 2002, phone calls in 2006, and 4G LTE data by 2012—a year before Google’s splashy launch.
Space Data’s case is assisted by the fact that Google had access to the company’s secrets through acquisition talks which it later cancelled.
Space Data approached Google in September 2007, and was met with enthusiasm. A Google court filing agrees that the companies had “multiple technical and business meetings…in 2007.” By December, talk had turned to acquisition. Google and Space Data duly signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that would allow Google to perform due diligence on the startup’s technical, commercial, and financial secrets.
On February 15, 2008, twelve Googlers, including both cofounders, arrived at Space Data’s headquarters on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona. Over the next four hours, Space Data alleges that the team toured the balloon manufacturing facility, visited Space Data’s Network Operations Control Center (NOC), saw confidential wind data, and examined inner workings of the stratospheric transmitters. At one point, Sergey Brin even allegedly launched a Space Data balloon and tracked its progress at the NOC.
A trial is scheduled for 2019, and Space Data may apply for an injunction in the meantime. However, Google has stated that it intends to ‘vigorously’ contest the case.
We don’t believe their claims have merit and are vigorously defending ourselves.
The most puzzling aspect to me is that either party could successfully patent a method of navigation used by every balloon pilot in the world since the very first days of lighter-than-air flight …