I will always admire Google for is their willingness to give back to the world. Even though they are a highly profitable company, it’s hard to complain about their products when many of them are free. One of their more recent endeavors is focused on providing Internet connectivity to people in remote areas by using balloons.
Yes, I said balloons. Sounds sort of loony, doesn’t it? That is actually a pretty accurate description.
It is called Project Loon. These are not just your average birthday party balloons, though. They are helium filled, solar powered balloons that are about 15 meters in diameter and they use the wind to float high in the stratosphere toward their destination.
Google’s description is short, sweet, and to the point.
Loon for All – Project Loon – Google
Many of us think of the Internet as a global community. But two-thirds of the world’s population does not yet have Internet access. Project Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters.
Project Loon balloons float in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes and the weather. In the stratosphere, there are many layers of wind, and each layer of wind varies in direction and speed. Loon balloons go where they’re needed by rising or descending into a layer of wind blowing in the desired direction of travel. By partnering with Telecommunications companies to share cellular spectrum we’ve enabled people to connect to the balloon network directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices. The signal is then passed across the balloon network and back down to the global Internet on Earth.
Project Loon began in June 2013 with an experimental pilot in New Zealand, where a small group of Project Loon pioneers tested Loon technology. The results of the pilot test, as well as subsequent tests in New Zealand, California’s Central Valley and in Northeast Brazil, are being used to improve the technology in preparation for the next stages of the project. Loon for All – Project Loon – Google
It’s amazing to think that for every person who has the ability to connect to the Internet, there are two people in our world who don’t. At this point, I can’t imagine life without connectivity. This video by Best Tech Info provides a visual of Project Loon and continues on with more information about the creator, Rich DeVaul, as well as others working on the project, with details and goals about the project.
I think it is a fascinating enterprise and could help so many people who can’t afford Internet services or live in areas where there are no cell towers. In this article from MIT Technology Review, the details about Project Loon are described in more depth.
One issue is the fragility of the balloon material. It has to be ultra lightweight to be able to float without any propulsion, but the balloons are easily damaged. A tiny pinprick hole can render the balloon useless in a couple weeks.
There are many other obstacles to climb, making it quite a ways off from being a reality. Interesting story to follow, though!
Billions of people could get online for the first time thanks to helium balloons that Google will soon send over many places cell towers don’t reach.
Availability: 1-2 years
Google says these balloons can deliver widespread economic and social benefits by bringing Internet access to the 60 percent of the world’s people who don’t have it. Many of those 4.3 billion people live in rural places where telecommunications companies haven’t found it worthwhile to build cell towers or other infrastructure. After working for three years and flying balloons for more than three million kilometers, Google says Loon balloons are almost ready to step in.
It is odd for a large public company to build out infrastructure aimed at helping the world’s poorest people. But in addition to Google’s professed desires to help the world, the economics of ad-supported Web businesses give the company other reasons to think big. It’s hard to find new customers in Internet markets such as the United States. Getting billions more people online would provide a valuable new supply of eyeballs and personal data for ad targeting. That’s one reason Project Loon will have competition: in 2014 Facebook bought a company that makes solar-powered drones so it can start its own airborne Internet project.
Google’s planet-scale social-engineering project is much further along. In tests with major cellular carriers, the balloons have provided high-speed connections to people in isolated parts of Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand. Mike Cassidy, Project Loon’s leader, says the technology is now sufficiently cheap and reliable for Google to start planning how to roll it out. By the end of 2015, he wants to have enough balloons in the air to test nearly continuous service in several parts of the Southern Hemisphere. Commercial deployment would follow: Google expects cellular providers to rent access to the balloons to expand their networks. Then the number of people in the world who still lack Internet access should start to shrink, fast.
“HARMLESS SCIENCE EXPERIMENT.” That’s what was written on the boxes carried by the balloons that the secretive Google X lab began to launch over California’s Central Valley in 2012, along with a phone number and the promise of a reward for safe return. Inside the boxes was a modified office Wi-Fi router. The balloons were made by two seamsters hired from the fashion industry, from supplies bought at hardware stores.
Project Loon is now much less like a science project. In 2013, Google began working with a balloon manufacturer, Raven Aerostar, which expanded a factory and opened another to make the inflatable “envelope” for the balloons. That June, Google revealed the existence of the project and described its first small-scale field trials, in which Loon balloons provided Internet service to people in a rural area of New Zealand. In 2014, Project Loon focused on turning a functional but unwieldy prototype into technology that’s ready to expand the world’s communication networks.
Loon’s leaders planned to buy their own space on the radio spectrum so their balloons could operate independently of existing wireless networks. But Google CEO Larry Page nixed that idea and said the balloons should instead be leased to wireless carriers, who could use the chunks of the airwaves they already own and put up ground antennas to link the balloons into their networks. That saved Google from spending billions on spectrum licenses and turned potential competitors into allies. “Nearly every telco we talk to wants to do it,” says Cassidy.
Google has also made major improvements to its stratospheric craft. One of the most significant was developing a way to accurately pilot balloons across thousands of miles without any form of propulsion. The stratosphere, which typically is used only by weather balloons and spy planes, is safely above clouds, storms, and commercial flights. But it has strong winds, sometimes exceeding 300 kilometers per hour. Providing reliable wireless service means being able to guarantee that there will always be a balloon within 40 kilometers.
Google solved that aviation problem by turning it into a computer problem. Winds blow in different directions and at different speeds in different layers of the stratosphere. Loon balloons exploit that by changing altitude. As a smaller balloon inside the main one inflates or deflates, they can rise or fall to seek out the winds that will send them where Google wants them to go. It’s all directed by software in a Google data center that incorporates wind forecasts from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration into a simulation of stratospheric airflow. “The idea is to find a way through the maze of the winds,” says Johan Mathe, a software engineer working on Loon’s navigation system. A fleet of balloons can be coordinated that way to ensure there is always one over any particular area. Project Loon