Google’s Project Loon, which was officially announced last year, has the task of connecting rural, remote, and underserved areas with internet access using high-altitude balloons that circle the globe. Google has been improving the technology since it first launched a pilot with 30 of the balloons last year, and today Wired published an interesting profile on how far along the project has come.
Cassidy pulled up to a rural schoolhouse that had never been able to receive high-quality Internet signals. (Locals sometimes climb trees to try to get a signal for their mobile phones.) The principal, who doubles as the lunchroom cook, ushered him into a classroom filled with middle-school-age kids. Within minutes, one of the balloons he’d launched that morning was overhead, enabling a teacher to get a high-speed connection on his computer. The instructor was able to supplement that day’s lesson about Portugal with Google maps and Wikipedia. Students asked off-the-wall questions—and got answers courtesy of Google. Later when Cassidy spoke to the kids, they shared their goals: One wanted to be an engineer; another, a doctor.
Google has overcome many early challenges with the project, according to Wired’s profile. Perhaps the most important of which is getting the balloons to fly for long periods of time. The company went from fly times of just a few days with the balloons last year to over 100 days today. That’s something experts didn’t expect Google could achieve. Google’s Astro Teller said Project Loon is “the poster child for Google X… the balloons are delivering 10x more bandwidth, 10x steer-ability, and are staying up 10x as long. That’s the kind of progress that can only happen a few more times until we’re in a problematically good place.”
Google also improved Loon flight times by dramatically upgrading the altitude control system, increasing the vertical range of the balloons so they can catch more favorable winds. (Its balloons “steer” their way around the world by placing themselves in wind currents headed in the right direction.) As a result, it’s not unusual for Google to keep balloons flying for 75 days. One craft, dubbed Ibis 152 (Google uses bird species to nickname its balloons), has been aloft over 100 days and is still flying. An earlier balloon, Ibis 162, circled the globe three times before descending. (It completed one circumnavigation in 22 days, a world record.)