August 20, 2013
Google’s Project Loon Looks To Take Flight
Peter Suciu for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Sometimes ambitious ideas may seem crazy. Perhaps this is why Google X, the search giant’s R&D brand for special projects, offered up the name Project Loon for its way to provide 21st century high-speed broadband using what could be seen as late 18th/ early 19th century technology.
“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,” Google posted on the Project Loon website. “Project Loon balloons float in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes and the weather. They are carried around the Earth by winds and they can be steered by rising or descending to an altitude with winds moving in the desired direction. People connect to the balloon network using a special Internet antenna attached to their building. The signal bounces from balloon to balloon, then to the global Internet back on Earth.”
The company announced this week that it is ready to openly test its high-flying Internet service in California, where research flights could take place around Central Valley. Google is now looking for people in the area who are willing to have a Loon Internet antenna installed on their house or small business as a way to help test the strength of the floating Loon connection. This follows June’s experiment in New Zealand, which saw some 50 testers give it a go.
The California test will reportedly run through the end of the year.
While this might sound like a “loony” idea, the Loon balloons, as well as flight control systems, were specially built by Raven Aerostar, a company that manufactures balloons for the government-sponsored Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, which is run by NASA. The company noted the potential of its balloons on its website:
“Raven Aerostar balloons are used in applications where reliability is critical. Raven Aerostar’s flight operations systems and crews have an impressive success rate in conducting flight operations for customers. In dozens of flight operations per year, virtually every customer payload has been successfully flown and returned to the customer for data analysis. We have a success rate of over 95% with NASA’s payloads of over 6,000 pounds.”
These balloons won’t likely even be seen from the ground and instead can operate in the stratosphere, or up to 12 miles above the ground. Unlike unmanned weather balloons, these can stay afloat for months, maybe years at a time.
Each balloon is quite massive as well, about 40 feet high and 50 feet wide, yet relies solely on helium for lift. The envelope -- the “balloon” part of the craft -- is just one-tenth of an inch thick, and is made of polyethylene fabric that is lightweight and relatively delicate, but strong enough to withstand the high-pressure differential of these altitudes.
The balloons also reportedly feature dual automatic air vents, which can be used by a remote pilot to control the altitude by adjusting outside air levels. Every move can also be tracked by GPS.
Even with this advanced technology to help provide remote Internet, Project Loon does have some serious detractors including Microsoft founder and former CEO Bill Gates, who questioned the project in an interview with Bloomberg-BusinessWeek.
“When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you,” Gates noted. “When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.”
Gates further noted, that while he remains a supporter of the digital revolution, he questions these type of advancements, as these are not really doing enough for “low-income countries, unless you directly say we’re going to do something about malaria.”