Almost two-thirds of the world does not have access to high-speed internet, but Google is determined to change that. Unfortunately, setting up an affordable infrastructure in remote areas is beyond even a huge multinational corporation's capabilities, which is why the company had to devise a completely out-of-the-box solution called Project Loon. As part of the project, Google recently launched a series of internet-enabled balloons into the stratosphere over New Zealand to provide broadband connectivity to rural areas.
The idea is to create a floating network about 20 km (12.4 miles) above the Earth's surface, high enough to avoid any adverse weather or airplane traffic. At that altitude, the winds are more mild, only 5 to 20 mph (8 to 32.2 km/h), but still strong enough to carry the balloons to other areas. If they need to go in a different direction, they can also be raised or lowered to catch a wind current heading on an alternative course.
Each balloon's envelope is made from sheets of polyethylene plastic and measures 15 x 12 m (49 x 39 ft) when inflated. They're built to withstand higher pressures than a typical weather balloon, but can also vent some gas to relieve pressure and have a parachute at the top to slowly land if needed. Google's researchers estimate the balloon envelope could keep the whole device aloft for over 100 days before it needs to be recovered.
The balloon carries a box of electronics beneath it, which contains radio antennas to communicate with the ground and other balloons, GPS, flight sensors, instruments to monitor weather conditions, and the necessary circuit boards for controlling the whole system. An array of solar panels provides 100 watts of power to the electronic components and can charge an on-board battery within four hours for use at night. Between this and traveling with the wind, the balloons operate entirely on renewable energy sources.
According to Google, Project Loon's network can provide connection speeds comparable to 3G, with each balloon covering an area on the ground about 40 km (24.8 miles) in diameter. Rather than using Wi-Fi, the balloons connect to an internet service on the ground and broadcast to homes via a radio frequency over ISM bands. This avoids interference while also reaching much greater distances. Anyone wishing to connect will have to install a special antenna on the outside of their home to receive the signal and decrypt the data.
Google has also established a Loon Mission Control to keep track of the balloons at all times, ensuring they remain operational and spaced apart correctly. Mission control will also coordinate with local aviation authorities on where the balloons are expected to travel.
Project Loon launched its very first balloon near Lake Tekapo, New Zealand on the morning of Jun. 14, 2013. Over the following days, the team released a total of 30 balloons into the skies above New Zealand's South Island to test out their capabilities with a small group of volunteers.
The research team is working closely with testers to determine how viable a balloon-borne internet service actually is. If all goes well, Google hopes its project could not only bring affordable, high-speed internet to remote locations, but also re-establish internet quickly following a disaster.
Anyone in New Zealand interested in become a tester for Project Loon can apply through the official website. For now though, you can check out the video below to see one of Google's internet-enabled balloons launched near a sheep farm.
Source: Project Loon
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