Project Loon explained: Can Google's balloons unite the world online?

22nd Sep 2013 | 12:00

Project Loon explained: Can Google's balloons unite the world online?

A load of hot air or an idea of stratospheric magnitude?

Project Loon explained

When Google first announced Project Loon back in July, we had to check the calendar to ensure it wasn't another of the company's elaborate April Fools' gags.

Thousands of balloons on the edge of space, floating around the globe on stratospheric wind currents, self-aware and conscious of each other's movements like a flock of birds, sounded outlandish enough, but beaming Wi-Fi down to remote or underprivileged black spots? Pull the other one, chaps!

However, as we listened to the pitch, the derision evaporated. Yes, this idea seemed beyond crazy – its absurdity is even acknowledged in the name – yet somehow still plausible. In Loon's case, the premise is so crazy that it just might work. On a small scale, at least, recent tests in New Zealand have shown the idea, from Google's secretive X Labs, does work.

Bringing the world online

Google estimates there are 5-6 billion people around the world without access to the internet. The majority of people on the planet are completely devoid of connectivity through poverty, a remote locale, a lack of infrastructure and, in some cases, all three.

Google's vision for Project Loon procures schooling for those currently without education, brings doctors for people who cannot travel to see one, and provides important weather data to assist farmers, whose harvests are affected by droughts and floods.

Illiteracy, Disease and Famine could be dealt a swift and telling blow with a little Wi-Fi and according to Team Loon, balloons stationed so high above the earth they can only be seen with a telescope, is the most affordable and best way to achieve this.

Project Loon

"The materials are pretty inexpensive," says Project Loon's Richard DeVaul. "The plastic of the balloons is similar to that in shopping bags and the electronics aren't that different from consumer electronics. This is a very cost-effective way to connect the world."

Give a child a balloon and maybe they'll smile for a day. Give them one with Wi-Fi and the possibilities, Google hopes, are limitless.

What is a Project Loon?

Naturally, the balloon itself is not just your average birthday party accoutrement. These massive structures are 15-meters wide and made a from polyethylene film that's only three times thicker than a supermarket carrier bag, but still thick enough to withstand high altitude air pressures without exploding.

However, the responsibility of the balloon, and its helium gas filling, is to get the real tech wizardry in the air and keep it there. Each unit carries a mini Linux-based computer, toting the all-important Wi-Fi radios, GPS and several sensors recording air temperature, altitude and speed of movement. All of this information is sent to Google's Command Centre on the ground below where the each balloon can be controlled to a certain degree

Once it has reached the altitude of 20km (65,000ft), it's will end its ascent. Then, as Google explains: "Signals are transmitted from the balloons to a specialized Internet antenna mounted to the side of a home or workplace that use radio frequency technology.

"The Internet antenna is connected to a consumer grade router. Web traffic that travels through the balloon network is ultimately relayed to ground stations, where it's connected to pre-existing Internet infrastructure, like fiber cables and our local telecommunications partners."

Project Loon

Once the trifecta of balloon, antenna and local ISP is complete, Each balloon is theoretically capable of bringing internet connectivity for everyone in a 12 mile radius. Get a few thousand of these up in the air, shove some antennas on a few houses and voila! Internet for all

Flocking together

However, won't any balloon filled with helium, however large and resistant to the elements, just float away on the breeze once it takes to the skies? How can it bring consistent coverage to an area if we can't control where they are?

Well Google says its Loon balloons are steerable from the ground. At stratospheric altitudes (twice as high as commercial aircraft fly, so there'll be no unfortunate accidents) wind currents tend to move in very specific directions. Google's Loon uses a custom-built, solar-powered pump to carefully inflate or deflate the balloon remotely from the ground. The idea is that each balloon rises and falls to the required height in order to move in the required direction at the required speed.

From they're, they're like sailboats, which Google says will eventually be able to stay in the air for 100 days at a time. When they reach the end of their shift, they can be directed to a designated rescue centres around the world and replaced.

As each balloon is able to communicate with its fellows, it'll move accordingly to ensure that, while doing these laps around the world, the balloons remain a sufficient distance from a colleague. The result? A balloon is always in range for the folks on the ground.

"Is it possible to have a nicely spaced out flock of balloons? The answer is yes. Once people could see this was possible, it became a feasible project, not some crazy science project," said Dan Piponi, a Rapid Evaluator for Project Loon.

Project Loon: will it work?

Sorry to pop your balloon, but…

Google makes it all sound pretty straightforward doesn't it? Could this latest Google X Labs "moonshot" really become a reality?

"No," said famed balloonist and aeronautical engineer Per Lindstrand, emphatically.

"I talked to them [Google] about it. I told them it was a waste of time, but they didn't listen," said the Swede, whose attempts to fly around the world with Sir Richard Branson have entered into legend.

"Balloons blow away. Wind speeds at that altitude can reach up to 120 knots, so they won't stay there for more than a minute."

Yeah, but surely Google can do that bit where they keep their Loon balloons in the air for 100 days, allowing the custom-built steering mechanism to keep them on track?

Another categorical "No" from Per. "No-one has been able to do that before."

"Normally a helium balloon at altitude can only stay up for 3-4 days, and if you set off a lot of balloons simultaneously around the world, sooner or later they're just going to collect at the North Pole or the South Pole. They can't stay in position."

"If you want them to be stationary, use an airship and use the sun as your power source and a fuel cell. That's the way to do it."

Get out of our airspace

It's not just the physical challenges that threaten to undermine Google's utopian vision for a connected world. Can you imagine the political hoops Google would need to jump through in order to make this work?

Is it remotely feasible that governments in China, Russia, North Korea and others would freely allow Google's balloons to operate in its airspace, potentially harvesting data from the ground below?

Project Loon

As there's no international agreement on the scope of a nation's vertical airspace, it's sort of a grey area. The Karman Line, defined as the boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and outer space, is one suggested benchmark. That sits at 62 miles above sea level, way above Google's Loon balloons.

Lindstrand wasn't particularly optimistic either. "Airspace is defined well above where these balloons are flying, so they will be in these countries' airspace. China can deny them access, of course they would. There's no question about it."

Even if Google were able to manoeuvre around the airspace issue, even if its intentions are totally pure, making Project Loon a reality is probably as much about diplomacy as it is about technology.

As The Atlantic's Will Butler writes: "What would Vladimir Putin think if he looked up to see an aircraft run by a US tech giant - one that occasionally shares data with the NSA, no less - dangling overhead? What if a few Loons had to take a rest stop over Pyongyang?"

Google doesn't particularly have a clean record when it comes to 'inadvertently' picking up public data either. There are a myriad of privacy concerns that come with Google's plan, both for those using the Wi-Fi and the countries within their airspace.

Project Loon

It's also debatable whether the lack of Wi-Fi is the real issue here for underprivileged in some parts of the world. Phares Kariuki, a former technology consultant to the World Bank said the price of internet-enabled gear is preventing people getting online.

"In Kenya, most parts of the country have 3G access," he told the MIT Technology Review. "The barrier to Internet adoption is not so much the lack of connectivity. It's the high cost of the equipment."

However, the plans to give every 7-year old in Kenya a laptop could relieve those problems somewhat.

Google's plans have also drawn ire from Microsoft-pioneer-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates, who thinks the web giant should be using its vast resources on tackling more urgent problems.

"When you're dying of malaria, I suppose you'll look up and see that balloon, and I'm not sure how it'll help you. When a kid gets diarrhoea, no, there's no website that relieves that," he sniped.

So what happens now?

Since its test in New Zealand, Google has gone quiet about Project Loon. It's been almost a month since its last video update on Google+ and our request for an interview for this piece was shut down.

At this point, it is possible there are hundreds of Loon balloons in the sky; that the project is much further along than we're all currently aware. Having gone public with its proof of concept exercises, it seems more likely than not that Google will go all-out with this one.

However, the technological, ethical and political challenges remain. Can Google's Project Loon rise above them with its latest "moonshot?"

As W Clement Stone wrote: "Always aim for the Moon, even if you miss, you'll land among the stars."

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