Google’s Project Loon fills internet gaps with solar-powered balloons
Mobile data might seem near-ubiquitous, but the world still has major dead zones and huge expanses with poor coverage. Anyone that has fervently and consistently checked the availability of Verizon’s FiOS in their neighborhood knows this all too well, but that still places you on the well-connected side of the spectrum — there are parts of the world where Time Warner and Comcast (let alone FiOS or Google Fiber) would be a huge advance. Over the weekend, Google launched Project Loon, an initiative to help fill in those internet gaps through the use of networked balloons.
The goal is to provide broadband-like internet for the two-thirds of the world that doesn’t have access to a reliable internet connection. To do this, Google is using a network of actual high-altitude balloons — this isn’t some kind of metaphor — that fly in the sky above the Earth. The launch of the project consisted of launching 30 balloons, each of which are capable of providing internet access with speeds comparable to 3G — better than nothing, but probably not fast enough to download all those episodes of Falling Skies that you missed so far this season.
The balloons were launched over New Zealand as a test bed and fly around 12 miles high, each of which able to provide internet connectivity for an estimated hundreds of people within a 25 mile diameter. The height of the balloons was intentionally chosen to be out of the way of commercial flights, as well as birds.
The Loon balloons are networked to each other with a radio transceiver, and are also in contact with the ground thanks to another. Each balloon has a third transceiver for backup purposes, and is tracked with on-board GPS. Each Loon balloon is powered via solar panels, which takes around four hours for a full charge, and extra energy is stored in a rechargeable battery.
The balloons also contain equipment to monitor the weather, as objects flying in the sky will surely bump into some less-than-desirable weather at some point, but the balloons have been built to withstand the conditions they will be facing.
This test covers just 50 or so people in the Christchurch area of New Zealand, where the testers are able to connect to the network thanks to special Loon antennas. The antennas work specifically with the Loon network and aren’t compatible with WiFi networks and actually filter out standard WiFi signals. The signals being transmitted to and from the balloons are encrypted, though Google didn’t go into much detail about how.
As for positioning, the balloons are largely automated, though do allow for human control from technicians back at Google’s Loon home base just in case. Eventually, though, Google is looking to automate the entire process and keep the balloons traveling within specific wind patterns in order to maintain consistent coverage of desired locations.
Where once satellite internet was the only option, balloons could provide a cheaper, faster solution to large portions of the globe where it might never make sense to run fiber. Basically, Google is testing out an internet network built on the backs of balloons flying in the sky, ushering in an age of steampunk-like connectivity for people far off from city centers and otherwise lacking in high-speed internet access.
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