Project Loon

Billions of people could get online for the first time thanks to helium balloons that Google will soon send over many places cell tower don’t reach.

Google says these balloons can deliver widespread economic and social benefits by bringing Internet access to the 60 percent of the world’s people who don’t have it. Many of those 4.3 billion people live in rural places where telecommunications companies haven’t found it worthwhile to build cell towers or other infrastructure.

The helium balloons are inflated to the size they reach in the stratosphere. The “ballonets” inside are filled with air or emptied to make the balloon fall or rise.
In tests with major cellular carriers, the balloons have provided high-speed connections to people in isolated parts of Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand. Google expects cellular providers to rent access to the balloons to expand their networks. Then the number of people in the world who still lack Internet access should start to shrink, fast.

Balloon revolution

The 15-kilogram box carried by a Loon balloon has computers that act on commands from flight engineers, as well as equipment to transmit Internet connectivity to the ground below.
 Project Loon aims to change the economics of Internet access.
Google has also made major improvements to its stratospheric craft. One of the most significant was developing a way to accurately pilot balloons across thousands of miles without any form of propulsion. The stratosphere, is safely above clouds, storms, and commercial flights. But it has strong winds, sometimes exceeding 300 kilometers per hour. Providing reliable wireless service means being able to guarantee that there will always be a balloon within 40 kilometers.

 Winds blow in different directions and at different speeds in different layers of the stratosphere. Loon balloons exploit that by changing altitude. As a smaller balloon inside the main one inflates or deflates, they can rise or fall to seek out the winds that will send them where Google wants them to go. It’s all directed by software in a Google data center. A fleet of balloons can be coördinated that way to ensure there is always one over any particular area.

A balloon that was intentionally burst in a test is checked for flaws.

The first version of this system sent new commands to Loon balloons once a day. It could find a way for a balloon launched over New Zealand, for example, to dawdle over land until prevailing winds pushed it east and over the Pacific Ocean. Then it would have the balloon ride the fastest winds possible for the 9,000-kilometer trip east to Chile. But that system could only get balloons within hundreds of kilometers of their intended target. For tests of Internet service in New Zealand and elsewhere, the company had to cheat, launching Loon balloons nearby to make sure they would be overhead. In late 2014, Google upgraded its balloon navigation system to give balloons fresh orders as frequently as every 15 minutes. They can now be steered with impressive accuracy over intercontinental distances. In early 2015, a balloon traveled 10,000 kilometers and got within 500 meters of its desired cell tower.
Google has  made many improvements to the design of the Loon balloons’ payloads and electronics. But it still has problems left to solve. For example, Google needs to perfect a way of making radio or laser connections between balloons, so that they can pass data along in an aerial chain to connect areas far from any ground station.
Those working on Project Loon are confident the public good will be served. They seem as motivated by a desire to make people’s lives better as by Loon’s outlandish technology.