Balloons floating on the edge of space have taken a giant leap towards providing internet access to anyone, anywhere. Google’s Project Loon, which is on a mission to deliver connectivity to world’s most remote locations, has passed its first major test – restoring internet access to 100,000 people in hurricane-hit Puerto Rico.
The brainchild of Google’s X innovation lab, founded in 2010, this Project is now on course to fulfill an ambitious goal. If the so-called ‘Loon Balloon’ succeeds, it could connect half the world to the internet, regardless of where they are. The technology that can reach the parts other telecommunications companies can’t is being developed with cutting-edge science. Science, that includes, among other things, specially adapted polyethylene sheets the size of tennis courts.
Remote areas, natural disasters, conflicts and territories without modern infrastructure mean more than half the planet does not have access to the web. Google’s Project Loon has worked on the premise that there should be ‘Loon for all’ – it’s official, play on words motto. It plans to take internet connectivity to new frontiers with a space-age concept.
The only way is up for Loon Balloon
The opportunity to put experimental Project Loon through its paces high in the skies above devastated Puerto Rico was given the green light on October 7, just 17 days after Hurricane Maria wiped out communication systems across the unincorporated US territory. Vast swathes of the island’s residents found themselves not just picking through rubble and struggling to find safe drinking water but minus access to the outside world. More than 95-percent of the island’s communication towers were destroyed in the disaster.
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, was quick to respond. It applied to the Federal Communications Commission for permission to launch the LTE-beaming Google Loon Balloon into the stratosphere high above the Caribbean peninsula. While it could take decades to rebuild the country entirely, Project Loon has already restored basic emergency internet access to a tangible portion of the population.
Alastair Westgarth, who is spearheading Project Loon, has started a partnership with SES, AT&T, and Liberty Cablevision is fully engaged to restore text and internet services across Puerto Rico. Writing on his blog, he said “the devastation that hit the island prompted the Loon Balloon’s fastest yet deployment and connectivity time”.
How Google’s Loon Balloon works
Innovators at Google’s X lab developed the high-altitude Loon Balloon to receive internet connectivity from satellites in space. Once connected, the balloons, which can be deployed to any location in the world, then relay internet access to the ground from the edge of space.
The successful pilot in Puerto Rico took off thanks to the partnership approach. 03b, owned by SES, provided a Fast Connect terminal which allowed the Loon Project to deliver a 4G/LTE internet access to mobile devices. Alphabet had previously partnered with SES when it tested Project Loon following floods in Peru earlier in the year.
What next for Google Loon Project?
The Loon Project is literally reaching for the sky with its bid to launch and maintain an entire fleet of space-age balloons. With Autolaunchers, X developers believe Google can safely launch consecutive balloons at 30-minute intervals. Since its inception, Team Loon Balloon has covered 25-million km in test flights alone. One balloon survived a record 190-days floating high-up in the stratosphere.
Of course, it takes an extraordinarily particular kind of balloon to face the sort of pressures that the edge of space presents. However, project Loon balloons have been designed to withstand winds of over 100km an hour and extreme levels of UV radiation. They also have to be able to perform in temperatures as low as -90. And that is incredible given how long these pieces of technology will eventually stay up there for.
With Puerto Rico under its belt, and deemed as a triumph, Google now really can say, there will soon be ‘Loon for all’ on the worldwide web and beyond.