Google Loon has had tests with major cellular carriers. The internet balloons have provided high-speed connections to people in isolated parts of Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand. Mike Cassidy, Project Loon’s leader, says the technology is now sufficiently cheap and reliable for Google to start planning how to roll it out. By the end of 2015, he wants to have enough balloons in the air to test nearly continuous service in several parts of the Southern Hemisphere. Commercial deployment would follow: Google expects cellular providers to rent access to the balloons to expand their networks. Then the number of people in the world who still lack Internet access should start to shrink, fast.
The 15-kilogram box carried by a Loon balloon has computers that act on commands from flight engineers, as well as equipment to transmit Internet connectivity to the ground below.
Loon’s leaders planned to buy their own space on the radio spectrum so their balloons could operate independently of existing wireless networks. But Google CEO Larry Page nixed that idea and said the balloons should instead be leased to wireless carriers, who could use the chunks of the airwaves they already own and put up ground antennas to link the balloons into their networks. That saved Google from spending billions on spectrum licenses and turned potential competitors into allies. “Nearly every telco we talk to wants to do it,” says Cassidy.
Providing reliable wireless service means being able to guarantee that there will always be a balloon within 40 kilometers.
Google solved that aviation problem by turning it into a computer problem. Winds blow in different directions and at different speeds in different layers of the stratosphere. Loon balloons exploit that by changing altitude. As a smaller balloon inside the main one inflates or deflates, they can rise or fall to seek out the winds that will send them where Google wants them to go. It’s all directed by software in a Google data center that incorporates wind forecasts from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration into a simulation of stratospheric airflow. “The idea is to find a way through the maze of the winds,” says Johan Mathe, a software engineer working on Loon’s navigation system. A fleet of balloons can be coördinated that way to ensure there is always one over any particular area.
In late 2014, Google upgraded its balloon navigation system to give balloons fresh orders as frequently as every 15 minutes. They can now be steered with impressive accuracy over intercontinental distances. In early 2015, a balloon traveled 10,000 kilometers and got within 500 meters of its desired cell tower.
Google needs to perfect a way of making radio or laser connections between balloons, so that they can pass data along in an aerial chain to connect areas far from any ground station.
But Cassidy says Project Loon’s technology is already at a point where stratospheric Internet service can be tested at a global scale. In 2015 he aims to evaluate “quasi-continuous” service along a thin ribbon around the Southern Hemisphere. That ribbon is mostly ocean, but it will require a fleet of more than 100 Loon balloons circling the globe, says Cassidy. “Maybe 90 percent of the time,” he says, “people in that ring will have at least one balloon overhead and be able to use it.”
It should be possible to operate one Loon balloon for just hundreds of dollars per day.
Among the upgrades Google is testing for its balloons (seen here from the rafters): using hydrogen, which is cheaper than helium, and having a motor move their solar panels to track the sun.
Google Plus Project Loon page discusses the 100+ days of endurance
3 million kilometers is a long journey. Google project Loon ballons have travelled 3 million kilometers through the stratosphere since the project began last year. The Google Plus Project Loon page has more up to date information than the main Google Project Loon website.
In that time we’ve learned a great deal about what it will take to bring the Internet to everyone, no matter where they are. For example, what footwear is it best for our manufacturing team to wear when they need to walk on the balloon envelopes? Turns out it’s very fluffy socks, the fluffier the better, to ensure the least amount of friction when building our balloons. This is just one of the hundreds of discoveries that has helped prevent leaks and refine our automated manufacturing process so that our balloons now last 10 times longer in the stratosphere than they did in 2013, with many lasting 100 days or more (our current record is 130 days.).
It’s one thing for our balloons to last longer, but to build a ring of connectivity around the world we’ll also need to get more in the air. Imagine how long it would take you and your friends to inflate 7,000 party balloons. That’s what it takes to fill just one of our Loon balloons for flight, so we’ve developed autofill equipment that will be capable of doing it in under 5 minutes. We now have the ability to launch up to 20 balloons per day as we continue to improve our ability to launch consistently at scale.
As we’ve launched more long-lasting balloons in the stratosphere we’ve needed to ensure that we can accurately maneuver them to where they need to go. By constantly computing thousands of trajectory simulations it turns out we can get pretty close to our targets. For example, one flight came within 1.5km of our target destination over a flight of 9,000 kilometers, purely through predicting and sailing with the stratospheric winds. This is great for getting our balloons to where users need them, and great for getting balloons to our recovery zones at the end of their lifetime to make our recovery team’s job that much easier.
But perhaps one of the best illustrations of the progress we’ve made in our journey thus far are these pictures showing one of our uber-sophisticated launches from the earliest days of Project Loon compared to one of our more recent efforts. What a difference 3 million kilometers make; here’s to many more.
Fast rollout over the next few years would provide trillions in economic impact and lift millions out of poverty
Reaching 90% of the world’s people with wireless service by 2030, up from 32% now, would produce economic gains of $17 for every $1 spent, it estimated. That’s below the $21 in benefits from a building out fixed broadband networks.
* this could provide over $22 trillion of GDP growth by 2030 ($2.2 trillion per year by getting to lifting developing world to the developed world 75% internet access)
* 160 million people could be lifted from poverty and 120 million jobs could be provided
Google internet balloons, drones and satellites could be the means to accelerate mobile internet deployment to the developing world. Facebook is also working on internet drones.
Deloitte estimates that extending internet access in developing economies to the level seen in developed countries can raise living standards and incomes by up to $600 per person a year, thus lifting 160 million people out of extreme poverty in the regions covered by this study.
The internet provides a route through which to improve awareness of diseases and provide information on health treatments. A number of free mobile-based and web-based applications exist in developing countries that provide information related to nutrition, hygiene and prevention of common illnesses. Evidence on the link between health literacy and mortality rates suggests that access to the internet has the potential to save nearly 2.5 million lives across the regions covered by this study, if they were to achieve the level of internet penetration seen in developed economies. In particular, Deloitte estimates that improved health information to expecting mothers and health workers could lead to a reduction of child mortality, saving 250,000 children who may otherwise have died during their first year of life.
If developing countries were to catch up with levels of internet access in developed economies today, they would reach a penetration level of around 75%, more than tripling the number of internet users from 800 million to 3 billion. This means that an additional 2.2 billion people would receive internet access; of these, 700 million would be in Africa, 200 million in Latin America and 1.3 billion in the Asian regions.
Deloitte estimates that increasing internet access to levels experienced in developed countries can increase the GDP of the regions considered by up to $2.2 trillion (an increase of 15%), with South and East Asia and India each gaining about $0.6 trillion in additional economic activity. Over ten years from 2020 to 2030 this would be a $22 trillion boost to GDP.
Output in Africa could increase by over $0.5 trillion. Across the developing world, this represents an increase in the GDP growth rate of over 72%: in India GDP growth rates have the potential to double, in Africa to grow by 92% and in South and East Asia to rise by 75%. These differences are based on GDP forecasts for the next years obtained from the IMF. They further highlight the potential impacts of internet access as a catalyst for economic growth, especially for regions, such as India, which are forecast to grow at a slower pace in the next years.
Google’s offering is called Google Free Zone. Through this two-year-old initiative, the company makes deals with mobile carriers in specific countries and agrees to pay the data charges of people who use Google search, Gmail or Google+.
Google Free Zone, as announced by Google on Nov. 8, 2012, operates in South Africa, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Nigeria and Kenya.
Facebook Zero, Wikipedia Zero and Google Free Zone are great for the relatively small number of people who live in the right countries and use participating carriers.
Subsidized data plans are possible only for people who live in areas where mobile connectivity exists. But billions of people live beyond the reach of any kind of Internet connection.
11,000 of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could provide internet to Africa. With Titan’s drones, Google could provide connectivity over longer distances, connecting their ring of internet balloons to other rings in remote areas.
In theory, a solar-powered drone capable of withstanding long flights at high altitude—in what Titan executives call the “sweet spot” in the Earth’s atmosphere between 60,000 and 70,000 feet, above nearly all weather patterns in a zone where winds are typically less than 5 knots (5.75 miles/hour)—would be able to perform tasks usually reserved for satellites at a much lower cost. A drone could be put up quickly, for much less initial capital. At the same time, it would provide targeted imagery at a cost of less than $5 per square kilometer—versus $35 per square kilometer from a satellite—while still offering the large area of coverage of a satellite
Earlier studies by the center found that $1 spent to alleviate childhood malnutrition would do $45 of good, while $1 spent on malaria would produce $35 of benefit. Each $1 spent to treat and research vaccines for HIV would generate $11 of gains.
“This doesn’t mean we should stop helping people with HIV and put all our money into broadband. But it suggests where the most development money should be focused,” said Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.
Comparisons between the benefits of HIV research and broadband access “infuriate a lot of people,” Lomborg admitted. But the goal of such studies is to influence debate on how an estimated $2.5 trillion of global development aid will be spent between 2015 and 2030, he added.
SOURCES – Technology Review, Google Plus Project Loon, Computer World, Copenhagen Consensus, Forbes, Deloitte
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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