When the “Project Loon” balloon circumnavigated the globe in 22 days this spring, it validated Google’s ambitious, and highly secretive, endeavor to bring Internet access to a significant chunk of the world’s currently unconnected population. When the concept was initially conceived three years ago, even the most forward-thinking members of the tech community scoffed at the idea of high-flying Internet balloons. Nevertheless, Project Loon took to the skies and launched its first prototypes from Christchurch, New Zealand. The project is still in the experimental phase – and now faces competition from Facebook, among other hurdles – but for now Loon is poised to bring wireless connections to the farthest reaches of the globe, inventing new rules as it goes along.
Officially unveiled just a year ago, on June 15, 2013, Project Loon has already overcome significant obstacles toward launching its high-altitude Wi-Fi balloons. Rich DeVaul, an expert in wearable technology at Apple, was the first to evaluate the project’s viability. Incubating in Google’s high-risk and high-security research arm, Google X, the concept of reliable Internet access via balloons initially seemed a likely candidate for dismissal.
DeVaul, however, thought otherwise. Using an idea called “variable buoyancy,” where the balloons would be steered by changes in altitude and wind currents, he pitched his “loony” idea to Google engineers. In August 2011, Project Loon took flight and began testing in California’s Central Valley.
By early 2012, the experiment was officially off the ground. DeVaul transferred responsibility to Mike Cassidy, who built the Loon project with a team of mapping specialists, energy experts, network engineers and ex-military operatives who were charged with recovering downed balloons in all types of terrain. Soon, Project Loon was ready for the big time, and at a large press conference, Google announced it would attempt to launch Loon prototypes over New Zealand, whose more rural, distant areas are home to thousands of inhabitants yearning for broadband.
The New Zealand tests boded well for Loon’s future. As many as 50 New Zealanders logged on to Google Balloon Internet. Recently, the Loon balloons were launched in another test run, this time in Brazil. Many small towns in rural Brazil have little or no Internet access – locals are even known to climb trees in order to hunt down weak and elusive broadband signals.
Launching from the town of Campo Maior, near the equator, Google’s technology was tested in ways that it had never been before. Navigating high temperatures, thick humidity, and scorpions, Google also experimented with LTE technology, hoping to bring an Internet signal directly to mobile devices. In a recent interview following the Brazil tests, the head of Google X, Astro Teller, spoke optimistically about the capability of the Loon balloons. “The balloons are delivering 10x more bandwidth, 10x steer-ability, and are staying up 10x as long,” he reported. “That’s the kind of progress that can only happen a few more times until we’re in a problematically good place.”
When Google first began test flights in New Zealand, it was working to get the balloons to stay up for several days at a time, and beam Internet access at speeds comparable to 3G networks via special antennas and receiver stations on the ground. During these initial tests, balloons typically lasted just a few days in the air. In order to increase flight time, Google altered its altitude control system, allowing the balloons to catch better high-altitude winds. They are now capable of flying for over 75 days before landing. Google is trying to keep the balloons afloat for even longer, with the goal of being airborne for 100 days at a time by 2015.
There is, however, a world helium shortage, and for balloons that rely solely on helium for lift this poses a problem. According to Project Loon field operations manager Paul Acosta, “There’s not really enough helium in the world to sustain what we want to do.” Obviously, there are still a few kinks to work out.
Using Raven Aerostar-designed and manufactured Super Pressure Balloons to carry Google’s internet-providing technology, each Loon balloon measures about 50 feet wide and 40 feet high. The balloon is consistently pressurized, both day and night, to provide a greater stability in the stratosphere, 12 miles up in the air. Each balloon has dual automatic air vents, which a remote pilot at Google Mission Control uses to control altitude and find wind currents. The specialized lightweight material from which the balloon is constructed is engineered to be as thin as a sandwich bag, yet highly durable. Tracked by GPSsignals, according to Google Mission Control, the balloons can be made to hover in place, and effectively guided around the globe for weeks on end.
Google’s audacious project, while innovative in its own right, follows a relatively long line of high-altitude platforms (HAPs) that have been soaring the skies for quite some time. Ten years ago, the European Union funded the CAPANINA project, which successfully produced broadband wireless access from a free-floating balloon over northern Sweden. Tethered balloon systems are also in use as well, utilized by the military in a system known as Lofted Communications. Using a communications relay attached to a helium balloon, Lofted Comms aids fighters in remote regions like Afghanistan. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also made headlines in recent months for his acquisition of Ascenta, a UK company specializing in high-altitude, long-range drones that will help sponsor his “Connectivity Lab.” In its own effort to provide Wi-Fi to regions currently without, Facebook hopes to use solar-powered aircraft flying in the stratosphere to instantly beam access to the World Wide Web.
Google’s balloon, inoffensive and unobjectionable though it may seem, is in fact closer to what we know as an “unmanned aircraft,” or drone. Each Loon balloon carries a computer, created within the carefully concealed Google X laboratory. Despite being within walking distance of Google’s main campus in Mountain View, California, the coordinates of this secretive lab are quietly kept from most employees. Google doesn’t share the precise number of balloons that are currently aloft, and attempts to contain much of the technology surrounding the project. With monumental successes under its belt, Google X has a range of divergent projects currently in development. In addition to crafting balloons, Google has reportedly purchased a company specializing in solar-powered drones and another firm that makes low-orbit satellites.
The benefits of this kind of technology are limitless. These technological advances could yield untold advantages for people living in rural communities throughout the world, who have historically had very few options available to them for Internet service plans. In addition, the Internet could help provide much needed infrastructure for public health and education in developing countries. A 2011 study showed that whenever a nation doubles its broadband speed, its economic output increases by .3%. Access to the Internet in the developing world means new online marketplaces for business, better education for more people, and increased opportunities for women and the poor.
For Google, the benefits are clear. If the Loon project succeeds, and Google achieves a stable stratospheric communications platform, it will be literally untouchable. Already functioning as the gatekeeper of much of the world’s information, not to mention the distributor of billions of dollars worth of advertising content, Google stands to revolutionize the way we communicate yet again. And while the company assuredly has its own business interests in mind, the millions living in low-income communities worldwide stand to benefit greatly from the Internet access that Google’s Loon Project will provide. We don’t know yet if this project will ultimately prove to be genius or folly. There is no precedent for what Google is attempting to do. But as the Loon Project prepares for the real world, its creators have already begun to push the boundaries of what lies ahead.
See videos on Project Loon below: