Science / World

Google’s Project Loon Aims to Change the World – One Balloon at a Time

“Almost the entire world is connected to the internet.”

If you live in Europe or North America, then you will probably agree with that sentiment. Who in the world doesn’t actually have internet in 2016? The answer may be surprising. According to the United Nations, 4.2 billion people do not have regular internet access. Countries with the lowest rates of economic development are the least connected: the 48 countries that are designated by the UN as the Least Developed in the World each have less than ten percent of their populations connected to the internet.

These numbers motivated Google, through its innovative research arm, now known simply as X, to launch Project Loon. The project intends to launch a fleet of high-altitude balloons capable of flying by themselves in the stratosphere, each equipped with internet-carrying transceivers. The technology involves the balloons propelling their way through the stratosphere layer, which is about 20km above the ground, by riding the wind like waves.

The internet is recognized as a key factor in economic development, fueling the growth of innovative industries and introducing the capacity for mass social change. People in developing countries are missing out on the benefits of internet technology by structural barriers beyond their control Google and X are attempting to transcend these barriers through Project Loon.

Project Loon uses helium-filled balloons, which carry a package of solar-powered communications devices, to beam internet coverage to an area of about 80km in diameter. They use LTE technology. Since the balloons are intended to be ever-moving, the project must involve having a massive network of balloons so that at least one balloon is always in range. That way when one balloon naturally floats away in the stratosphere, another one is right behind it to ensure continuous coverage. This model will necessarily allow cellular device to connect to it in addition to computers and laptops, which would achieve download speeds of up to 10Mbps. This would be game-changing for the impacted locations.

After five years of testing, X has announced serious improvements in the efficacy of Project Loon. The balloons are more durable, with an average flight duration of well over 100 days. Targeting has been markedly improved, with one balloon traveling over 10,000km and still coming within 500 meters of its intended target. Positioning updates are now provided several times an hour, allowing better steering and tracking.

Google has now signed documents with Sri Lanka to deploy Loon technology. Sri Lanka has a population of more than 20 million people, but only 3.3 million mobile internet connections. In return for a 25 percent stake in Project Loon in the country, the government is now permitting Google to test Project Loon in the country. One of three balloons intended for the project has now been launched from South America, where it will make its way to Sri Lanka.

X’s goal for Sri Lanka is to make it the second country to gain full internet coverage with LTE technology. (The first country was the Vatican.) The next round of testing will be Indonesia, which is a good proving ground for Project Loon. Indonesia is spread over a 740,000 mile area, with more than 17,000 islands providing significant barriers to technology. If Project Loon succeeds in Indonesia, then this innovative technology might just change the world.

3 Comments

  1. Ingrid says:

    100 yards? That’s pretty good! What a cool project.

  2. Carol Markham says:

    I’ve never heard of this! LTE is sorely needed though.

  3. jimmy says:

    COOLL!!!

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