Focus on Technology
2:00 pm
Wed August 7, 2013

Balloon-powered Internet

Billions of people around the world still do not have access to the Internet. Google is looking to change that with an out of the box idea. 

Project Loon to deliver Internet by balloon

In a remote part of New Zealand Google pilot testers unpack special balloons for launch. These aren’t birthday balloons or hot-air balloons, but balloons specifically designed to bring the Internet to two-thirds of the world’s population that don’t have it.

Here's a diagram of Project Loon.

The balloons are made of very thin plastic, 3 millimeters thick. The cargo includes solar panels, a flight computer and an altitude control system. Even when inflated their volume remains constant.

Rich DeVaul, recorded on this Google video, is the chief technology architect for what’s called “Project Loon.”

How it works

Ground stations connect to the local Internet infrastructure and beam signals to the balloons. The balloons are then able to communicate with each other, forming a mesh network in the sky. Pilot testers connect to the balloon network using a special Internet antenna attached to their house.

“We’ve designed radio and antenna signals that only pick up Project Loon signals," says DeVaul. " If you didn’t filter them out, it wouldn’t work.”

Nelson Vincent knows the area well. The University of Cincinnati’s Vice President of Technology and Chief Information Officer grew up in New Zealand. “Now where they’ve piloted this particular type of technology with about 30 balloons was in the south island of New Zealand called Canterbury, which is a little south of Christchurch and so that area is very famous for being a great area for gliders and balloons. It’s also very isolated with lots of mountains and lots of rural areas so perfect folks to be customers of this technology.”

The balloons, floating in the stratosphere, would beam Internet access similar to today’s 3G networks or faster. Vincent has been working for years to get other remote areas access to the Internet. He’s hopeful.

There are still lots of questions about the technology

Vincent does have doubts and wants to know could Google reliably get them up and down and what happens when there are thousands of these floating around?

Most recently he worked in Northern Iraq to help higher education rebuild itself after 35 years of isolation. He says there’s won’t be any fiber optics there for at least five years. He also doesn’t see broadband in Africa for a number of years. One other solution could be to use the same fiber as electricity uses. But would the bandwidth be broad enough? Project Loon balloons are controlled by mission control.  

Vincent says it’s ironic that balloons, dating back to 220 AD could be married to the best new technology. A new series of tests with smaller balloons are now underway in California.