Google has confirmed that a balloon involved in its Project Loon struck power lines and knocked out electricity for some residents of a Washington town last week. The company told NBC News that the balloon was "in the process of a controlled landing" at around 1AM when it took out a small number of electrical lines. Prior to the descent, Google notified FAA officials of the landing to avoid any risk of interference with nearby air traffic.
Unfortunately, Google has no way of ensuring its balloons won't wreak havoc once they're closer to the ground; there's little the company can do about unexpected wind gusts, for example. Responding to the incident, a utility worker came upon "what appeared to be a weather balloon with blinking lights entangled in the power lines," reported the Yakima Herald Republic. The entire scene was cleared by 6AM.
To Google's credit, it's apparently done exhaustive research to prevent (or at least greatly minimize) accidents like these. The Project Loon website specifies that balloons are normally brought down over "preselected, safe recovery zones." They're all equipped with parachutes designed to automatically deploy if a balloon is falling too fast; these also help slow down emergency landings if and when they prove necessary. Google's goal with Project Loon is to beam down internet access to remote and rural areas that ordinarily receive poor connectivity — or none at all. A sophisticated balloon network is central to this effort; each balloon travels in the stratosphere, high above commercial air space, for several months at a time. The company obviously hopes to avoid incidents like this one as it pushes that mission forward.