Pervasive as it may seem, a majority of the world’s population lack access to the Internet. Reason? While few people are connected, about four billion people, as of late 2015 either can’t afford it as it is prohibitively expensive or they live in an area where it doesn’t exist, or they live in places where the coverage is inadequate.
In a bid to bring those people online, engineers at Google’s Loon Project announced back in June 2013 that it was building a network of high-altitude balloons to blanket the world’s poor, remote, and rural regions with 4G LTE signals beaming down from the skies to anyone with a 4G device.
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This technology would provide Internet connectivity to farmers living in remote villages worldwide to be able to gain access to weather data; rural people will be able to do research and seek online educations. This plan to simultaneously put 100 of solar-powered balloons in the stratosphere would have these four billion more eyeballs on Google search engine.
The first beneficiaries of this high-speed 4G LTE service provided by Google balloons would be people living in rural South America, Southern Africa, and Oceania before it is expanded elsewhere.
How Google’s Loon Project Works
Originally known as Project Loon, the technology behind the internet balloons was developed under parent company Alphabet’s experimental division, X. The project name Project Loon was appropriately chosen because it partially involves balloons and partially because it sounds looney. But how does it work? Read on!
Project Loon balloons are made from three-millimeter-thick sheets of polyethylene and are a super pressure envelope. In other words, they maintain constant pressure when temperatures change. Partially filled with helium and powered by a solar panel for launch, the balloon swells to full size once they are 18 – 27 km above the earth’s surface in the stratosphere.
The balloons which are 12 meters tall and 15 meters in diameter are designed to withstand tough atmospheric conditions such as pressure differences, high winds, UV exposure, and extreme temperatures. They stay afloat for months at a time, by moving with the wind and a navigational algorithm is used by the engineers to ensure that they can move where they’re needed before they are brought down to the recovery zones for maintenance.
Along with the software algorithm, the metallic electronics box holds a flight computer with a battery; and a handful of radios and specialized antennas which relays internet signals transmitted from the ground, extending coverage over an area of 5,000sq km (1,931 square miles).
Regional telecoms beam signals to the high-altitude balloons. With the antennas, each balloon wirelessly communicates with dozens of others to form one large communications network. One balloon relays the signal–like a cell tower in the sky–to a ground area many miles in diameter.
Meanwhile, download speeds can reach up to 15MB per second for 4G devices or 40MB per second on a Wi-Fi device. Notably, this concept had been tested with Wi-Fi, but Google abandoned the plan because it would have meant building a network of ground-based antennas, too.
With 4G LTE, people in even the most remote locations can have access to email and Internet in Quebec on a cell phone alone.
3. Balloon Navigation
Layers of stratospheric wind blow in different directions but in predictable ways and directions. Ground engineers steer the balloon up or down through layers to steer it north, south, east, or west.
Google engineers can lower the balloon by releasing gas from the envelope. In danger of bursting, Gas can also be vented automatically. To raise it, they release air. Using navigation algorithms based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wind-prediction data, they drive the balloon into the current that takes them where they need them to go.
You can find all of the details at Loon for All – Project Loon – Google