Google Project Loon deploying high altitude balloons to provide internet access to everyone

Introducing the latest moonshot from Google[x]: balloon-powered Internet access. Project Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill in coverage gaps and bring people back online after disasters.

Many of us think of the Internet as a global community. But two-thirds of the world’s population does not yet have Internet access. Project Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters.

Project Loon balloons travel around 20 km above the Earth’s surface in the stratosphere. Winds in the stratosphere are generally steady and slow-moving at between 5 and 20 mph, and each layer of wind varies in direction and magnitude. Project Loon uses software algorithms to determine where its balloons need to go, then moves each one into a layer of wind blowing in the right direction. By moving with the wind, the balloons can be arranged to form one large communications network.

They use “variable buoyancy”—steering the balloons by tweaking altitude to find wind currents whooshing in the right direction. Google, which is pretty good at computation, could use the voluminous government data available to accurately simulate wind currents in the stratosphere.

The Project Loon pilot test begins June 2013 on the 40th parallel south. Thirty balloons, launched from New Zealand’s South Island, will beam Internet to a small group of pilot testers. The experience of these pilot testers will be used to refine the technology and shape the next phase of Project Loon.

The balloon envelope is the name for the inflatable part of the balloon. Project Loon’s balloon envelopes are made from sheets of polyethylene plastic and stand fifteen meters wide by twelve meters tall when fully inflated. They are specially constructed for use in superpressure balloons, which are longer-lasting than weather balloons because they can withstand higher pressure from the air inside when the balloons reach float altitude. A parachute attached to the top of the envelope allows for a controlled descent and landing whenever a balloon is ready to be taken out of service.

Googlers in fleece and down vests scurry around a huge tarp, ministering to five “envelopes”—the term for the high-tensity, polyethylene balloons—resting on red plastic covers. The envelopes seem no more glamorous than long garbage bags and, indeed, at three-thousands of an inch thick, not even a premium brand. But the high-tech polyethylene can in fact stave off tremendous pressure.

Attached to the bottom of each envelope is the 22-pound “payload.” It’s topped by a sheet of solar paneling the size of a basketball backboard. Beneath the solar sheet is a construct resembling a large camera tripod, whose legs are antennas that allow the balloons to transmit to their peers in a mesh network. And on the bottom of the structure is a metal-sided container resembling a deep fuse box, which contains the computers, electronics, GPS devices, and batteries to store the energy gathered by the solar panels (each about 10 times the size of a laptop battery). It also controls valves that go inside the balloon’s internal chambers, allowing the balloon to find the desired altitude to maintain its flight path. Dangling from the box is a cable ending in a piece of foam that looks like a slice of a kid’s swimming noodle; inside is a transponder that beams location to air-traffic controllers and other trackers.

It’s time to launch. As team members take positions to stabilize and hold down the balloon, a machine that seems an artifact from the industrial age begins pumping helium into an envelope with a sound like a thousand hot showers channeled through Jimi Hendrix’s amps. And the clear plastic starts to rise. A blob-ish lump awakens inside the balloon skin, quickly growing from waist level to three times human height. As more gas enters, a classic balloon, like Dorothy’s vehicle to Oz, takes shape, at first looking like a giant pumpkin, then resembling a swimming jellyfish, straining for the ocean surface.

The flight engineer organizing the launch begins a classic NASA-esque backwards countdown, and chatter subsides as the numbers decline. At zero, a Googler holding a yellow sheet of matting called “the peanut”—it’s wrapped around the neck of the balloon to keep the payload from dangling during inflation—lets go. The mass jumps skyward, tugging the payload off the ground. It rises nimbly and steadily, and soon it’s hard to tell the difference between this giant translucent mass (a Loon balloon will grow to the size of a small aircraft) and a child’s toy floating above rooftop level.

Red ball receiving antenna

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