Google's Project Loon uses big networked air balloons to fill internet black holes

Google's Project Loon uses big networked air balloons to fill internet black holes

Summary: The first of Google's radio-networked balloons hit the skies this weekend.

TOPICS: Networking, Google

Over the weekend Google kicked off Project Loon, its experiment to work out whether it's possible to patch internet connectivity gaps around the world with a string of networked balloons.

The project was born out of from Google's X Lab, which develops "moonshot" radical technology proposals aimed at solving a global problem. In this case, the problem is providing broadband for two-thirds of the world's seven billion people that live in rural and remote areas and don't have reliable access to the internet.

Google launched the 30 radio-laden balloons in Canterbury, near Christchurch in New Zealand, over the weekend, with each able to deliver 3G-comparable speeds to "hundreds" of people in an area that covers a 40km diameter. The balloons are travelling about 20km above Earth's surface, which Google notes is twice the altitude of commercial airlines and not in the path of birds.

Each rig's flight systems are charged up in four hours using solar panels, with additional power stored in a rechargeable battery. Each balloon contains a GPS for tracking its location; three radio transceivers, including one backup; a radio for balloon-to-balloon communications, and another for balloon-to-ground communication. The radios are operating using unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz bands.

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A Loon balloon. Image: Google

Currently 50 people in New Zealand are testing connections to the network of balloons.

The balloons hitch a slow ride on different layers of wind in the Earth's stratosphere. As Google explains on its Project Loon page, the flight systems are used to move the balloons up or down to take advantage of the different directions and speeds each layer of wind currents is moving at.

"Winds in the stratosphere are generally steady and slow-moving at between 5mph and 20mph, and each layer of wind varies in direction and magnitude. Project Loon uses software algorithms to determine where its balloons need to go, then moves each one into a layer of wind blowing in the right direction. By moving with the wind, the balloons can be arranged to form one large communications network." 

The project is now working out how to make the balloons stay in the area where they're wanted. Not surprisingly, it's solving this with "some complex algorithms and lots of computing power".

Project Loon is now looking expand the pilot in countries at the same latitude as New Zealand.

Topics: Networking, Google

Liam Tung

About Liam Tung

Liam Tung is an Australian business technology journalist living a few too many Swedish miles north of Stockholm for his liking. He gained a bachelors degree in economics and arts (cultural studies) at Sydney's Macquarie University, but hacked (without Norse or malicious code for that matter) his way into a career as an enterprise tech, security and telecommunications journalist with ZDNet Australia. These days Liam is a full time freelance technology journalist who writes for several publications.

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  • Deja-vu...

    Hmm, this looks like a DotCom Bubble :-)
  • Loon is a good name for it

    As in Loonie i.e. dumb idea.
    • Maybe

      The Wright brothers got a lot of similar comments in their day:)
  • balloons

    How many of these are going to fall in the ocean? I remember the commercials urging us not to release helium balloons because a whale might swallow them. Not so concerned about whales (take a big one to swallow this!), but wouldn't it be easier to do satellite Internet? Subsidize it somehow for some of these regions?
  • long range wifi?

    Can wifi really reach that distance? I think my laptop wifi range conks out at 100 yards or so. How do they make it reach up to the clouds?
    Adam Russell
    • It's all about power!

      The radios in your wifi at home is something like 100 miliwatts of transmit power (someone correct me if I'm wrong).
      It's not so much to do with the frequency band the wifi operates in but the TX power. for example a community radio station at 1 watt only get s to city limits but at 10+ watts can get a lot further. I think the consumers may be using special hi output modems to connect at 20kms away and the balloons are using a tx power similar to Telco mobile networks, may even be using 3G / 4G tech.
      Wes Lucas
      • Me correcting me

        to correct my self.... 3/4G modulation but at much higher transmit wattage.. as mobile towers can't cover anywhere near 20km's range!
        Wes Lucas