Project Loon
A US wireless-technologies firm is claiming that Google stole its idea for Wi-Fi balloons and has infringed patented technologies AFP

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is being accused of stealing the idea behind the Project Loon, the balloon-based wireless-data network from a US firm entitled Space Data Corporation (SDC).

Project Loon is a network of balloons that float in the stratosphere at the edge of space, armed with broadband antennae to help deliver internet access to people who live in rural and remote areas around the world. It was launched in 2013 by Google X Lab, the experimental technologies division of Google.

SDC is a wireless technology firm based in Chandler, Arizona. The firm claims that it developed the technology for the Wi-Fi balloon network more than a decade ago and patented the idea, which was then used in the company's two key products – namely the SkySat and the SkySite platforms – that are currently used by the US Marine Corps, as well as to provide low-cost voice and data communication in rural locations.

In a lawsuit filed on Monday (13 June 2016) with the District Court for the Northern District of California in San Jose, SDC explains how Google was interested in buying the company, to the extent that more than 10 representatives from Google met with the firm in 2007 and 2008 to discuss potential partnerships.

However, Google decided not to collaborate with SDC or acquire the firm because SDC's founder and CEO Jerry Knoblach told the Wall Street Journal about the potential acquisition in 2008, and instead began developing its own balloon network in 2011, which was officially announced in 2013 as Project Loon.

Breaching a non-disclosure agreement

Similarity between patent and Google's Project Loon
Left: Space Data Corporation's patent describing how the Wi-Fi balloon platform works. Right: A diagram from Project Loon’s website, showing a very similar schematic depiction of a balloon-based platform Space Data Corporation

SDC says that it gathered data about the stratosphere after spending hundreds of thousands of flight hours flying its various balloon-borne platforms. To that end, it was granted permission by the US Department of Defense to handle classified information as the data collected was considered to be a state secret, and the firm had to make sure that its proprietary data and technology remained confidential.

SDC is alleging that Google stole its technology – confidential details of the patented technology were shared during the meeting under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and the firm says it even has photographic proof showing Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin looking at a prototype for the balloons.

The court documents state that Project Loon has breached the copyright on US Patent 6628941: "Airborne constellation of communications platforms and method"and US Patent 7801522: "Unmanned lighter-than-air safe termination and recovery methods", which were patented in 1999 and 2010 respectively.

SDC seeking damages for two counts of patent infringement, as well as triple damages for misappropriating trade secrets and breaching the NDA.

IBTimes UK has contacted Google for comment and is awaiting a response.