We’re All Going Loony

For most of us, access to the internet has become old hat. We can check emails on our cell phones while skyping on an iPad, and simultaneously stream instant video to our laptop. Our ability to function and perform daily tasks relies heavily on the availability of an internet connection. But what about the two-thirds of the world that has little or no access to the internet?

In 2013, a small Google initiative was started and dubbed Project Loon or simply, Loon. The stated goal of Loon is to provide global internet access, using balloons sent up into the stratosphere. Thirty balloons were launched in 2013 from New Zealand, and Google hasn’t looked back since. Up in the stratosphere (higher than aircraft fly or weather systems occur), the balloons network together using the popular LTE telecommunications system. This networking of balloons aims to fill coverage gaps, bringing the internet community to the remotest parts of the world, while also serving to bring people back online after a disaster.

How Does It Work?

Upon reaching the stratosphere, the launched balloons are caught in the stratified wind currents that are present at those particular heights. The winds travel in different directions and at varying speeds; this posed a problem of controlling where and how these balloons would navigate. An algorithm was therefore created, controlled by a computer at project headquarters, which determines where each balloon is in relation to the earth, and where it is in relation to its member balloons. For example, as one balloon is slowly whisked away from providing coverage to Indonesia, another balloon takes its place and assures that there will be consistent LTE network availability. Each balloon provides networking within a 25-mile diameter circle, relaying communications from LTE-capable cell phones to the global internet. Every 100 days, the balloons have to be switched out (a vast improvement on their original 2-day life). This ensures that each balloon is always working at optimal capacity and safety.

The Balloon

A fully inflated balloon measures approximately 15 meters by 12 meters, and is made of polyethylene plastic which can resist the temperatures and wind currents of the stratosphere. They last for about 100 days and then descend to earth in a controlled fashion. If a balloon begins descending too rapidly, it deploys a parachute to prevent a devastating crash. Hanging below the balloon is a box containing the electronics, radio communications system, plus two angled solar panels which run the electronics and charge up the lithium ion batteries so that usage can continue during the night. A big selling point for Loon is its ability to operate on a completely renewable energy source.

Goals Of Loon

It’s clear that the primary goal of Loon is to provide internet access for people everywhere in the world. While Netflix, YouTube and other entertainment media consume a large portion of internet activity, Loon has loftier goals, aiming to bring people closer into the global community and also provide services that improve quality of life. It’s estimated that one in three global citizens have no access to secondary education. With Loon, secondary education can come to them. Farmers can check weather patterns to ensure a healthy crop and to make sure their animals are staying dry and warm. Medical access is limited in a large portion of the world, so with the LTE internet that Loon provides, people can interact with doctors from around the globe. Google hopes that one day soon we can say that everyone is ‘on the internet’.

Wrapping It Up

All in all, Loon is an amazing project, and so far it has brought internet to a small portion of New Zealand. Conceptually, Loon does work, and it will eventually provide internet to all ends of the earth. However, there is still the challenge of getting the LTE-capable devices into the hands of people in the remotest (poorest) parts of the globe. Not only would they need the devices, but they would have to have some viable option for paying Google for the internet service. Thankfully, this is the only significant issue I see with Loon. Let’s give credit where it’s due and applaud Google for yet another brilliant contribution…. in the hope that, our global community will be a reality one day soon.