It’s a bird… It’s a plane… It’s a balloon!


How often don’t we hear the phrase: “Everyone is on the Internet”? While this may be true in our Western countries, this definitely isn’t true for other countries. Actually, two-thirds of the world’s population doesn’t have Internet access yet!

Could this become a thing of the past? Say hi to Google’s Project Loon!

Project Loon is being developed by Google’s semi-secret (probably the reason you might not have heard about it yet) facility called Google X, which is dedicated to making major technological advancements.

What is Project Loon?

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 (Google, 2014).

Sounds fancy, doesn’t it? But how does this exactly work?

The balloons communicate with specialized Internet antennas on the ground. An antenna on the ground ‘talks’ to a balloon in the sky. In turn, the balloon ‘talks’ to neighbouring balloons and then back to the ground station, which is connected to the local Internet provider. Thus creating a network in the sky.

google-project-loon-designboom00

Let’s get a better picture about the revolutionary balloons.

The balloons are so-called superpressure balloons filled with helium. They stand 15 metres across and 12 metres tall when fully inflated. The balloons are equipped with solar panels to keep it running, while also charging a battery for use at night (Wikipedia, 2014).

google-project-loon-600x399

Furthermore, the balloons can travel by using the many layers of wind in the stratosphere. Since every layer of wind varies in direction and speed, the balloons can go where they are needed simply by rising or descending into a layer of wind blowing in the desired direction of travel.

Since we’re not here to simply advertise new technologies, let’s try to get some food for thought in!

After all, Google is still a company. So what’s in it for them? How can they benefit from this seemingly philanthropic idea?

Assuming this project succeeds (which, I know, is a big assumption) and Google manages to provide Internet access to third world countries, they become world’s biggest Internet provider. Furthermore, Google’s search engine as well as their other products (e.g. Gmail and YouTube) will have to deal with massive increases in usage.

Extending our scope beyond Google, imagine the possibilities for access to education and information in third world countries! People can receive information about health and hygiene without the presence of a doctor!

What is the first thing that comes to your mind?

Whether Project Loon will be as philanthropic as it seems or Google is just thinking about massive stacks of money, it sure is an awesome revolutionary idea!

Sources:

http://www.google.com/loon/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Loon

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2 responses to “It’s a bird… It’s a plane… It’s a balloon!”

  1. maxmerten says :

    Google Loon sounds like a very interesting idea to me. It is very innovative and if it works it will solve a lot of problems. How awesome would it be if after a disastrous storm the internet would still work to communicate emergency services through? Besides the positive points of Google Loon I can’t help to be critical about this project. The following questions arise to me:

    How will the balloon determine its height? I haven’t read anything about a small motor on the balloon. Also loosing helium isn’t an option because of its limited supply. Besides this, it seems almost impossible to determine the wind directions on a continuous basis for thousands of balloons. And how quickly can the balloon descent? If wind directions change the balloon might not have enough time to descent or ascent and float in the wrong direction.

    Another point which interests me is how long a balloon can stay in the air? The amount of helium in the balloon is limited. And looking at the picture the balloon packaging also doesn’t look to strong. I think it could be a big risk for Google if they don’t build their balloons in a solid way.

    Third, I’m curious about the amount of balloons they plan to launch. Given the enormous amount of space to cover it seems almost impossible to cover the entire earth. Google will have to make huge investments. I don’t doubt they have the resources to do it, but will it still be profitable?

    My last point relates to the business need of this project. In the blog post you mention providing internet to third world countries. I am skeptical about the amount of people in that area who desperately need internet. The investments might be lost if the project flops.

    • dannyexalto says :

      Dear maxmerten, first of all thanks for your interest in Project Loon and my blog!

      I will now try to clarify some of your concerns, in order for you to get a clearer image about the project.

      I got most of the information I used to answer your questions from the first source I provided in the blog post: http://www.google.com/loon/.

      Altitude the balloon is at
      You raised some questions about the height of the balloon and even more specific: how to adjust the altitude the balloon is at.

      If you visit the first source mentioned above, you will find a video called “How do the balloons move up and down?”. The explanation is quite technical, but it comes down to a mechanism that is able to let wind in and out of the balloon, allowing it to ascend or descend into different layers of wind.

      You also question the possibility to measure the winds in the stratosphere on a continuous basis. If you visit the source I named above again, you will find another video, called “How does Project Loon use wind data?”. In this video Google explains they collaborate with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to get their best predictions. Furthermore, all balloons are equipped with a GPS system, allowing Google to see which way the wind is blowing the balloons. The video also makes clear Google is only flying a few balloons, but already collecting a lot of data about the stratospheric winds. They can use this data to fly even more balloons and gather even more data. So they are ever improving their understanding of the stratosphere.

      Durability of the balloon
      Regarding your concerns about the lifespan and the firmness of the balloons, I will once again point you to one of Google’s video about Project Loon: “How do the balloons last for so long?”. Google aims to have the balloons in the sky for 100 days or 3 laps around the world. They recognize the importance of using leak-proof materials for constructing the balloons in order to realize this goal.

      Amount of balloons to be launched
      I am just as curious as you are! Given the fact they aim at a network that is mostly designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, I doubt they are going to try to cover the entire planet (at least in the first stages of the project). Maybe by the time Google can provide Internet to a significant part of the world, they have already developed new technologies that do not need the deployment of balloons?

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