Google has always been known to come up with ambitious plans with global scopes. However, no one can accuse them of being idle dreamers. Take Google Books, for example. Google had this vision of a global library that everyone around the world can access via the Internet. It was met with lawsuits from the beginning, but this library project has continued to gain support from major libraries and even a number of publishers themselves. As of April 2013, Google Books has accumulated over 30 million books in its database.
The most recent ambitious project of the company is now geared towards communications and even economic development of some of the most isolated places around the world.
“Balloon Powered Internet for Everyone”
Last June 14, 2013, Google introduced Project Loon, a project that aims to provide internet access in targeted terrestrial locations. This is done by launching air balloons equipped with a flight computer and other electronics that enable them to beam Internet access back to the ground.
The project had already begun its test runs in New Zealand. Thirty balloons have already been launched and are currently floating above the country. Several of the balloons have already trekked through the stratosphere, crossing the South Pacific, and are circumnavigating the world along the same latitudes.
So far, this test run has given Google a wealth of information on how to better their techniques in steering the balloons, what modifications are necessary to improve performance and extend the balloons’ solar battery life, how to deal with extreme temperatures, and so forth.
The amazing thing is Google has been very open thus far about its test run. Anyone can follow the progress of Project Loon by following its Google+ page. The people behind the test run in New Zealand are posting updates and sharing with the public the insights they are learning, as well as the possibilities that they are seeing for Project Loon.
How it Works
The principle behind this is so simple, one would wonder why no one had thought of doing something like this before.
Each super-pressure balloon is massive with a whopping 15-meter diameter. It is made of very thin, very light polyethylene plastic though, so it lifts up the sky easily. It is strong enough to lift the flight computer and other electronics. All these are powered by a solar power panel.
Each Google balloon will be launched 20 kilometers above the ground, which places it precisely within the stratosphere and way above the 10-kilometer mark, where the rainclouds and storms are formed and airplanes travel. The winds in this location are more predictable, making it is easier for ground control to navigate the balloon’s direction.
Google also recruited pilot testing volunteers on the ground level. They attached signal receptors on the homes and buildings of the volunteers. These receptors receive Internet signal from the balloons hovering above. At the same time, the balloons also transmit signal to one another, thereby extending the area coverage of the Internet transmission.
Transmission is carried out by radios set at a frequency exclusive to Project Loon.
The strength of this connection is expected to be as fast as—even faster than—3G networks. This is a tremendous improvement for many areas in the Southern Hemisphere wherein Internet connection is very limited, expensive, and, in most cases, nonexistent.
This is the goal of Project Loon: to perfect a method of providing accessible and reliable Internet connection all over the world that’s more affordable than satellites. If successful, this can contribute hugely to economic progress. Lines of communication will be open. Information will be available to the locality, and likewise, they can also send information to other distant places. Professional services that are limited will be supplemented by Internet connectivity.
These Google balloons can also serve as backup for communications in the event of natural calamities that would normally isolate affected areas.
At present, an estimated 1 out of 3 people in the world has access to the Internet and all its benefits. The people behind this project believe that the Internet should be made available to everyone—and by everyone, they do mean “everyone.”
Beyond Providing Internet Connection
The prospect of sending balloons bearing sophisticated equipment in the atmosphere brings to mind several more possibilities than just beaming Internet signal back to the ground.
1. Weather Surveillance
First is the possibility of using the Project Loon technology for weather forecasting. In one of its updates, for example, a balloon drifted over a series of Pacific storms and drifted along with the vortex even though it was theoretically out of the typhoons’ reach in the stratosphere. If outfitted with the right video equipment, pressure gauges and other equipment normally used for monitoring weather, the balloon could have gathered plenty of information to alert the people below.
It may be possible for a Google balloon to detect weather developments from the sky and transmit the data to the stations below, thereby giving early warnings to vulnerable communities.
2. Security Surveillance
It cannot be helped that anything resembling the functions of a satellite is always associated with security surveillance.
Project Loon has very noble intentions, but it is bound to face some difficulties with international politics. The fact that a computer system can be sent flying around the globe regardless of national borders may not sit well with many nations.
Jillian York of Electronic Frontier Foundation also raised a logical concern. It is entirely possible for offended or disagreeable governments to shoot down the balloons hovering over their respective territories.
While there is no denying the technological prowess of Google, and since the general response of the public on this endeavor is mostly positive, there is a high chance that the company will nevertheless face backlash of the political nature.
All issues aside, Project Loon seems to be very promising. Pilot testers in New Zealand are praising the project thus far and are enjoying the benefits of their free Internet access. If this privilege is extended all over the world, the Internet may cease to be a luxury and will instead become a privilege that will serve a greater population.