Google’s ‘Project Loon’ connects the world
BY SANDY STRASSER
One could think that the internet connects people the whole world over. However, in truth, two thirds of the world’s population still do not have access to a functioning network. ‘Project Loon’ is due to change this. A handful of balloons flying along the edge of space will allow people in rural and remote areas to be part of the digital age, helping to bridge one of the largest supply gaps of the present day.
Project Loon is a Google research project, lead by the company’s own research department, Google X. It all began with a pilot test in 2013, when 30 balloons rose from New Zealand’s south island and connected a small group of testers to the internet. Around 50 inhabitants of the city of Christchurch we able to take part. In order to be able to reach a larger number of people and areas further afield, the pilot test was immediately extended with the goal of establishing a ring of continuous connectivity on the latitude of the southern hemisphere.
Project Loon’s balloons are floating in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes fly – leaving the forces of nature such as the weather ‘behind’ them. Up there, at the edge of space between 10 and 60 kilometres high, there are a lot of technical challenges to tackle. The thin atmosphere offers little protection from UV rays and extreme temperature fluctuations which can reach up to minus 80 degrees Celsius. Therefore, the balloon shell needs a special construction, which consists of polyethylene plastic plates and measures 15 metres high by 12 metres wide when completely inflated.
As a result of the careful planning and realisation of the shell, the creators of Project Loon are in the position to use the constant winds of the stratosphere to overcome all eventualities – a prerequisite is, therefore, the strong exterior. With this, a balloon can last for 100 days in the stratosphere. In a control centre, employees can follow the flight path of every balloon exactly and change it accordingly by having them fly higher or lower. This is necessary, as different wind directions and speeds prevail in the stratosphere. The balloons are steered in a particular choreography so that there is always one in the position where internet is needed from the air.
Multiple solar panels, which can provide up to 100 watts, guarantee the energy supply. In order to fully function at night, a battery comes into use. The current range within which a balloon can provide internet is 40 kilometres. If a balloon is no longer functioning, the gas is released from the shell in order to bring it to earth in a controlled manner. If it drops too fast, a replacement parachute, which is fastened to the top of the shell, comes into use.
In order to use LTE, Project Loon has created partnerships with telecommunications companies, so that people are in the position to be able to access the internet everywhere with their mobile phones and other devices capable of using LTE. The balloons then feed the radio signals with the help of high-speed connections back into the global internet. It is desirable that sometime in the future, every human being on our plant should have access to all the things which belong to a modern and fair coexistence.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q2 2015.