We’ve seen several reports of Google wanting to bring Internet access to emerging-countries, and the company has now announced a project that will greatly help it accomplish that goal. In a post on the official Google blog, Mike Cassidy announced the next “moonshot” from Google’s mysterious X lab, balloon-powered Internet access.
Google believes that it might be possible to build a ring of balloons that travel around the globe on the stratospheric winds and provide Internet service to the earth below. The company does warn us that this idea is still in the very early days of development, but says that it has built a system that uses balloons carried by winds at altitudes as high as planes and beams Internet at speeds as fast or faster than current 3G networks.
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The moonshot will be called Project Loon, as Google hopes to use it to connect rural, remote, and underserved areas to the web. The blog post also notes that it will be useful in times after natural disasters when standard connections may be down, something that would be incredibly helpful, as we learned after Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast last year.
There’s some serious technology and science behind it, as well.
Balloons, with all their effortless elegance, present some challenges. Many projects have looked at high-altitude platforms to provide Internet access to fixed areas on the ground, but trying to stay in one place like this requires a system with major cost and complexity. So the idea we pursued was based on freeing the balloons and letting them sail freely on the winds. All we had to do was figure out how to control their path through the sky. We’ve now found a way to do that, using just wind and solar power: we can move the balloons up or down to catch the winds we want them to travel in. That solution then led us to a new problem: how to manage a fleet of balloons sailing around the world so that each balloon is in the area you want it right when you need it. We’re solving this with some complex algorithms and lots of computing power.
Google started a pilot program in New Zealand with 50 testers trying to connect balloons. The company launched 30 balloons, the most it ever has. Over time, Google hopes to set up pilots in counties at the same latitude as New Zealand.