Project Loon – Google’s plan for establishing networks in the stratosphere

Photo Rights: Google
Google’s Project Loon launch event in June 2013.  Photo rights: Google.

Motivated by the simple fact that around two thirds of the world’s population doesn’t yet have access to the internet, Google researchers are pioneering technology that could bring connectivity and the internet to billions around the planet. The plan is straight-forward enough: float network enabled balloons high up into the Earth’s stratosphere to create a spatially distributed network of devices orbiting the planet along prevailing latitudinal winds, connect them to internet providers and beam the net back down to homes, devices and businesses on Earth. The name for this ambitious venture? Project Loon.

Astro Teller, head of the Google’s X lab, spoke about Project Loon at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference earlier this week – stating that the project is on track towards establishing a network in the Southern Hemisphere within one year’s time that’s capable of delivering internet to billions who are currently offline. This seemingly bold claim relies upon Google getting a sufficient number (thousands in all likelihood) of Loon Balloons up into the stratosphere to ensure that a signal on the ground can be assured. This objective however, might not be quite as hard as it sounds.

Photo Rights: Google
A Loon Balloon ascending over New Zealand’s mountains into the stratosphere.  Photo rights: Google.

The project was introduced in June 2013 and so far successful trials have been taking place in the United States, New Zealand and Brazil. Once filled with helium, Loon Balloons float up to 60,000 feet (or about 20km) to reach their operational altitude, that’s roughly twice the height at which commercial airliners operate. What makes the project unique, besides its apparent audacity, is its use of stratospheric winds as a source of inertia to keep balloons moving in coordinated manner – a technique relying on what the Google team responsible for the project have termed ‘variable buoyancy’. Using air pumps to adjust the amount of air in the balloon, controllers are able to ascend and descend the balloons between layers of wind blowing in varying directions and speeds in order to manipulate each balloon’s position and direction of travel. Wind data retrieved from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is used to determine what altitude is desired; the massive computation of which appears to have been ably handled by experts at Google who’ve demonstrated the feasibility of the positioning technology. Consequent to this elegant use of winds, the balloons (together with their payloads) use only small amounts of energy and can be powered solely by solar panels, staying in the air for up to 100 days at a time, and operating both day and night.

Each balloon carries a payload of about 10kg that contains a variety of equipment: GPS, batteries, and a computer contained in a box held beneath a solar panel. A ground based station receiving connection from an Internet Service Provider (ISP) transmits a signal that is collected by antennas set into part of the balloon’s lower frame; the signal is then shared across a network the balloons create. Custom internet antennas are required to connect to this network as a customer, but the reception technology has proven its validity; data rates of 22mb per second to fixed antennas and 5mb per second to mobile devices have been demonstrated.

Photo rights: Google
Loon Balloons utilise solar and wind resources. The stratosphere is ideal for solar panels since there are no clouds to block the sun. It takes 4 hours for the solar panels to charge the Loon Balloon’s battery during the day; power that keeps flight systems working 24 hours a day.  Meanwhile, multiple layers of wind in the stratosphere are taken advantage of by way of variable buoyancy to control positioning.  Photo rights: Google.

The significance and potential humanitarian gains from this project are immense. Not only would the technology bring the internet to remote places lacking infrastructure to support land-based internet services, and in particular developing countries; but it would also offer truly meaningful possibilities to bring disaster hit regions back online in a very short space of time, or ensure they don’t lose the internet in the first place. This is a significant issue – not only does the internet allow people to search for those missing, but it provides a critical technology for aid workers in documenting displaced people and in communicating with one another in relief efforts. The initiative also spells good things for shipping, bringing internet to those far out at sea who at times face connectivity issues.

school is connected for the first time ever to the rest of the world via balloon-powered Internet. Tiao then used Google Earth, the Cultural Institute, and Wikipedia to deliver a lesson on world cultures
Potential for bringing the internet to billions: a school in Brazil is connected to the internet for the first time as a result of Google’s Loon Balloon. The lesson went on to introduce Google Earth and Wikipedia during a geography lesson on world cultures. Photo rights: Google.

Building off of their proof-of-concept successes in connecting residences to a Loon Balloon network in New Zealand and Brazil, as well as some two million kilometers of balloon travel docked to date, forthcoming plans involve production of a vast number more balloons that will be launched into high altitude latitudes around the Southern Hemisphere as early as 2015. Such a fleet of balloons would be enough to create what Teller described as a ‘semi-permanent ring of balloons somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere’, and presumably therefore, a semi-permanent, high-altitude based internet provider to rural and developing regions around the planet.  The magnitude of such a feat really shouldn’t be understated, particularly in light of what the internet represents as a tool for education, development and the sharing of knowledge.

References & Resources:

Google Project Loon – Official site

Follow Project Loon on Google+

MIT Technology Review – article