Google Loon: Internet Access for Rural Areas via Balloon

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Will solar-powered computerized balloons bring Internet connections to the most remote regions of the world? Image by Junior Melo

Internet Balloon Successes:

Google’s Internet balloons aren’t doing too badly, according to Cassidy – the team has designed the balloons to remain in the air for long periods of time before coming down for repair or replacement. Cassidy tells Decoded Science, “We’ve designed the balloons to be able to stay in the air for 100+ days at a time. During our initial tests, the flight durations will be shorter.” – and once the balloons come down, they’re not lost forever (or potentially the source of another Roswell weather balloon scare) – they’re marked clearly with ‘HARMLESS SCIENCE EXPERIMENT’, and brought down carefully in safe areas.

According to Cassidy, “We aim to retrieve our balloons whenever possible; we’ve flown hundreds of balloons and retrieved over 95% in testing, and we’re working towards a goal of a 100% retrieval rate.”  He adds that, “We can control the descent of our balloons. We plan to take our balloons down over safe recovery zones, and in the event of an unexpected landing all our balloons have parachutes to slow their descent and foam bottoms to cushion the landing.”

Why is this important? Retrieval of balloons brought out of service means improvements in later engineering, as technicians can work to reproduce errors and fix problems in later designs – so a high rate of return directly influences the potential success of the Loon project.

Project Loon Breakthroughs

This project faced a number of challenges – but with a combination of freely available wind data, engineering prowess, and algorithm superiority, the Loon project could have a lofty future, particularly for rural areas which are unable to get any other types of Internet access.

As Mike Cassidy tells Decoded Science, “Project Loon is made possible by advances in engineering that make balloons controllable, long-lasting, and relatively inexpensive.  These breakthroughs have collectively made it possible for balloons to be a viable communications platform.

  • Hard balloon science breakthrough: making individual balloons controllable, by adjusting their altitude so they can travel on winds going in the speed and direction we want.
  • Hard computer science breakthrough: making balloons manageable in groups, so they can provide consistent Internet connectivity to a given area.  We need to be able to predict where they will be at a given time, e.g. 2 hours, 2 days, or 2 weeks from now.   We can do this using (freely available) global wind data that we get from NOAA, and it involves computer algorithms and large amounts of computing power — 2 things that Google tends to be good at.”

Computer algorithms and large amounts of computing power: Two things Google tends to be good at? Yes, indeed.

Resources

Google. Loon: The Technology. (2013). Accessed June 16, 2013.

International Telecommunications Union. All About the Technology. (2011). Accessed June 16, 2013.

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