Google's Balloon-Connected Web Initiative Starting to Take Off

By Jaikumar Vijayan  |  Posted 2014-11-25 Print this article Print
Google Project Loon

The Internet giant said it can launch up to 20 Project Loon balloons a day to deliver Internet service in rural areas.

Google's Project Loon initiative to deliver Internet connectivity to rural and remote areas around the world using a global network of high-altitude balloons appears to be gathering momentum.

In a recent blog update, the company said it now has the capability to launch up to 20 Project Loon balloons every day, each of which it estimates can stay in the air for at least 100 days.

That's nearly 10 times longer than what the balloons were capable of in June 2013 when Google first began pilot-testing the effort in New Zealand. Since then, Google's high-altitude balloons have traveled a total of 1.9 million miles and have been tweaked to make them more durable, reliable and maneuverable than before.

"It's one thing for our balloons to last longer, but to build a ring of connectivity around the world, we'll also need to get more in the air," the Project Loon blog on Google+ noted.

Each Loon balloon requires as much lighter-than-air helium gas to inflate as 7,000 party balloons. To reduce the time needed to inflate them, Google has developed new equipment capable of finishing the task in less than five minutes, Google said.

Project Loon is a Google research and development project through which the company hopes to establish what it describes as a ring of uninterrupted balloon-powered Internet connectivity at latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere.

Loon balloons are designed to fly in the stratosphere at altitudes of about 65,000 feet or nearly twice as high as commercial airliners and even weather balloons. The balloons take advantage of variables in wind speed and direction in different layers of the stratosphere to move in the direction they need to go. Sophisticated software algorithms determine where each balloon needs to be in order to form a continuous communication network in the sky.

Each balloon is made of polyethylene plastic and enables Internet connectivity to an area of 24 miles in diameter using Long-Term Evolution (LTE) frequency bands, according to Google.

"As we've launched more long-lasting balloons in the stratosphere, we've needed to ensure that we can accurately maneuver them to where they need to go," Google noted in its Project Loon blog. "By constantly computing thousands of trajectory simulations, it turns out we can get pretty close to our targets."

As part of its expanding Project Loon effort, Google has said it will partner with telecommunications companies and use their base stations to bounce signals to its balloons, which will then bounce them back to homes and offices in remote areas.

According to the Australian Associated Press, Google recently has entered into one such partnership with Telstra in Australia. Under the arrangement, Google will launch 20 of its high-altitude balloons in western Queensland and use Telstra's base stations to communicate with them.

Ambitious as Google's plans are, the company is not alone in wanting to enable Internet connectivity for the two-thirds of the world's population that doesn't have it yet.

Social media giant Facebook has also embarked on a similar quest via its Connectivity Lab. The company has assembled a team of aerospace experts from numerous organizations like NASA, Boeing, Honeywell and Harris Corp. to find a way to enable global Internet connectivity using, among other technologies, solar-powered drone aircraft.


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