Google's Project Loon Test Flight in Brazil Shows Promise

A Project Loon test balloon allowed students in a rural classroom in Brazil for the first time ever to connect wirelessly to the Internet right from inside their school.


Google's Project Loon has reached several key milestones in testing being done in Brazil as the innovative Loon experiment moves forward to deliver affordable high-speed Internet access to users in remote locations using connections made through high-altitude balloons.

One of the first successes is the connection of a school on the rural outskirts of the town of Campo Maior to the Internet for the first time using the wireless connections through a Loon balloon, according to a June 16 post on the Project Loon Google+ page.

"The vast majority of this community doesn't have Internet or cell service—but the locals know of a few very specific spots around town where they might find a weak signal," the post states. "So if you see them sitting in trees, you'll know why. (In fact, they have a word for this—'vaga-lume,' which means 'fireflying' in English—because at night that's what the glow from their mobile phones looks like.) But with the Project Loon team in town and one of our balloons overhead, the students in [a] geography class were able to get to the Internet from their classroom for the first time as they learned about world cultures."

The successful test flight also marked a few other significant firsts for Project Loon, the post states. "Launching near the equator taught us to overcome more dramatic temperature profiles, dripping humidity and scorpions. And we tested LTE technology for the first time; this could enable us to provide an Internet signal directly to mobile phones, opening up more options for bringing Internet access to more places."

Project Loon, which was unveiled in June 2013, is being touted as a high-tech way to create Internet connections for two-thirds of the people in the world who currently don't have Internet access due to high costs and the difficulty of stringing connections in rural and far-flung parts of the world.

The Loon concepts were first tested at that time in an experimental pilot project in Christchurch and Canterbury in New Zealand, where 50 volunteer testers worked to connect with the balloons high above, according to Google. The New Zealand pilot tests showed that the concept could work and confirmed that balloon-powered Internet may be a viable approach.

A Project Loon balloon was also in the news in May 2014, when it fell from the skies and struck a power line over Washington state as it was being tested, according to a story in The Yakima Herald. The incident occurred about two miles south of Harrah, Wash., knocking out power to a small number of nearby homes, the story reported. Google had notified the Federal Aviation Administration that the balloon was being brought down so that it could ensure that all aircraft stayed safely out of its path, the paper reported.

"Since launching Project Loon in New Zealand last year, we've continued to do research flights to improve the technology," a Google spokesperson told eWEEK in an email response to an inquiry about the incident. "We coordinate with local air traffic control authorities and have a team dedicated to recovering the balloons when they land."

The balloon that came down was apparently launched from Nevada as part of the ongoing Loon project tests. The balloons in the Loon project are purposely brought down by Google periodically for many reasons, including to inspect them and to collect data.