Google Unveils Project Loon: Internet Access From Above
June 16, 2013

Balloons Could One Day Provide Internet Access From The Stratosphere

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

On Friday, Google announced an ambitious plan to provide true worldwide internet access by using a network of balloons.

While using 19th century technology to send instantaneous communications might seem like something out of a steampunk fantasy, Google said it envisions the newly unveiled Project Loon as a way for children living in remote villages to gain access and education or far-flung farmers to track weather patterns.

“We believe that it might actually be possible to build a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on the stratospheric winds, that provides Internet access to the earth below,” a post on Google´s official blog said. “It's very early days, but we've built a system that uses balloons, carried by the wind at altitudes twice as high as commercial planes, to beam Internet access to the ground at speeds similar to today's 3G networks or faster.”

The project is expected to launch a fleet of about 30 giant balloons from New Zealand. After climbing to an altitude of around 60,000 feet, the balloons are designed to harness wind and solar energy to drift around the planet in a controlled manner and deliver connectivity to parts of the world where the internet has never been seen.

Reports say each balloon is about 49 feet in diameter and designed to hold electronic equipment underneath, which include antennas, a flight computer and solar panels. According to Google, each balloon is geared for about 100 days of flight and will provide connectivity to an area stretching almost 25 miles in diameter on the ground below. The balloons are expected to be navigated using Google computers and government wind direction data.

“Using just wind and solar power: we can move the balloons up or down to catch the winds we want them to travel in,” the Google blog post said.

“That solution then led us to a new problem: how to manage a fleet of balloons sailing around the world so that each balloon is in the area you want it right when you need it,” the post continued. “We´re solving this with some complex algorithms and lots of computing power.”

Because the balloons´ equipment relies on solar power, the Google algorithms must also factor in the amount of charge left in a particular battery when designing evening flight plans. As a balloon´s equipment runs out of battery life, the system is designed to begin a controlled descent, landing the craft where locally-based employees can recover it.

"They have aviation transponders on them and we're in constant contact with civil aviation authorities while the balloons are going up and coming down," Richard DeVaul, chief technical architect at Google X, the company´s high-risk research department, told BBC News.

"They have flashing lights and radar reflectors, so as far as aviation hazards go these Loon balloons present very low risk to aircraft,” DeVaul added. "And they also pose low risk to anybody on the ground because even in the unlikely scenario that one suddenly and unexpectedly fails, they have parachutes that are automatically deployed."

The company is currently performing preliminary testing on the project in New Zealand and said they have plans to expand the trial to Argentina, Chile, South Africa and Australia.