Project Loon is yet another highly ambitious project of the tech-giant Google, which aims to deliver Internet connectivity to areas of the world that don’t already enjoy good access to the web. To achieve this, the company plans to send out a fleet of super-pressurised helium balloons, set to hang in the stratosphere at an altitude of about 32 kilometres, forming a high-tech communications network capable of providing high-speed connectivity.
Basically, the balloons will be maneuvered by adjusting their altitude to float to a wind layer with the desired speed and direction using wind data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The signal travels through the network – balloon to balloon – then to a ground-based station connected to an Internet service provider (ISP), and finally onto the global Internet. The service will become available by attaching a special antenna to the roof of a user’s building.
Despite the project sounding like a pie-in-the-sky dream straight from a science fiction movie, with Google itself calling it “unprecedented” and even “crazy”, provided that all tests go as planned, the company hopes to dispatch the very first “loons” already next year.
“[We need] about 300 balloons or so to make a continuous string around the world,” said Mike Cassidy, Vice-President of Project Loon. “As one moves along with the wind out of range, another one comes to take its place. We hope next year to build our first continuous ring around the world, and to have some sort of continuous coverage for certain regions.”
The first, pioneering ring will encircle an area above the Southern Hemisphere, with each of the 300 proposed balloons providing connectivity to the ground below in an area that spans 40 kilometres.
As for the balloons themselves, the company claims they’ve come a long way since the announcement of the project two years ago.
“In the early days, the balloons would last five or seven or 10 days. Now we have had balloons that have lasted as long as 187 days,” said Cassidy. “We’ve also improved the launch process. It used to take 14 people an hour or two to launch a balloon. Now with an automated crane we can launch a balloon every 15 minutes with two or three people.”
The “loons” aren’t the only thing that was up-scaled, by the way – at the beginning, connectivity at the ground was akin to that provided by 3G cellular networks, whereas now the balloons can deliver speeds up to 10 megabits per second, or the equivalent to 4G mobile speeds in many parts of the world.
Cassidy said that if the flagship 300 balloon ring is a success, the project will then begin rolling out to the first beta commercial customers, including Sri Lanka and Indonesia, which have already signed on for the project.
With over two-thirds of the world not yet online, the company predicts many more customers to step forward in the near future.