Google reports since last year, they have been able to extend project Loon internet balloon flight times and add mobile connectivity to the service. As a result, Google’s expectations are flying even higher than the 60,000-foot strata where its balloons live.
“This is the poster child for Google X,” says Astro Teller, who heads the division. “The balloons are delivering 10x more bandwidth, 10x steer-ability, and are staying up 10x as long. That’s the kind of progress that can only happen a few more times until we’re in a problematically good place.” A year ago, balloons typically remained aloft for a few days at most, and download speeds averaged one or two megabits per second—comparable to the slowest wired Internet service.
Google bumped up flight durations by extensively analyzing its failures. Using former military operations people, it took pains to recover nearly every downed balloon. Google’s testing procedures also got a boost from winter’s polar vortex: Ground temperatures in South Dakota, where some of the balloons are manufactured, went as low as -40 degrees Celsius, about the same as what balloons encounter at 60,000 feet. So Google could test the inflated materials at leisure. Ultimately, Loon engineers concluded that one of the biggest factors in failure were small, almost undetectable leaks in the polymer skins that must withstand huge atmospheric pressure and up to 100 mph winds. Even a pinhole can shorten a balloon’s lifespan to a few days.
The Loon crew not only strengthened the fragile seams where leaks often occurred but took fanatic care in handling the envelopes. They used to walk on the flattened polymer in stocking feet. Now only super-fluffy socks will do. Google, being Google, tested this protocol before implementing it. Teams were created, one wearing conventional socks and the other donning fuzzy footwear. Both groups performed a rigidly proscribed line dance, as if the spread-out balloon polymers were Urban Cowboy-style dance floors. The fluffy-footed team created significantly fewer pinholes. “We’re getting the next five billion online through a line dance!” Teller says.
Google also improved Loon flight times by dramatically upgrading the altitude control system, increasing the vertical range of the balloons so they can catch more favorable winds. (Its balloons “steer” their way around the world by placing themselves in wind currents headed in the right direction.) As a result, it’s not unusual for Google to keep balloons flying for 75 days. One craft, dubbed Ibis 152 (Google uses bird species to nickname its balloons), has been aloft over 100 days and is still flying. An earlier balloon, Ibis 162, circled the globe three times before descending. (It completed one circumnavigation in 22 days, a world record.)
Google made a different kind of advance with Loon when it added the capability to send data using the LTE spectrum—making it possible for people to connect directly to the Internet with their mobile phones. (Loon’s original Wi-Fi connection required a base station and a special antenna.) Using LTE also helped Google boost the capacity of its connections. Recent Loon payloads are providing as much as 22 MB/sec to a ground antenna and 5 MB/sec to a handset.
With the advances made over the last year, Google has a clearer idea of how it might eventually make money with Loon. In addition to connecting the last few billion (and often cash-poor) Internet users, the project might serve already-connected people with fat wallets by partnering with existing providers to deliver a super-roaming experience. “It’s not limited to rural areas,” Teller says. “Even in the middle of Silicon Valley you can lose connections while driving; large buildings and hills can block the signals. Balloons can fill in dead spots.”
When Loon began, Teller’s biggest worry was that powerful telecommunications companies would view the project as a threat and attempt to snuff the project. But in part because LTE makes it possible for Google to interweave its service with existing mobile data networks—standard service in cities, Loon connectivity in more remote areas—the reaction has been the opposite. “Every telco wants to partner with us,” Cassidy says. Google is working with the regional giant Vivo and Telebras in its Brazil tests. It’s also working with Vodaphone in New Zealand. “They’re teaching us about what they need and how they can help,” Teller says.
Cassidy ticks off the goals for the next year: routine flights of 100 days, 100 balloons in the air at once (that’s four times the previous high), and then a full ring of between 300 to 400 balloons circling the globe to offer continuous service to a targeted area. Teller predicts that Loon may actually make enough progress to become operational, at least in the guise of a pilot program. Just where this will happen and how many people it will serve, he doesn’t say.
Not surprisingly, the Loon team is growing. Though Google won’t reveal headcounts, it allows that the muscle behind the balloon effort is comparable to other Google X projects like Glass or self-driving cars.
SOURCE – Wired