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Google floats balloon-powered internet network with Project Loon


June 18, 2013

Google recently launched Project Loon, which will send internet-enabled balloons into the stratosphere to provide high-speed connectivity in remote areas

Google recently launched Project Loon, which will send internet-enabled balloons into the stratosphere to provide high-speed connectivity in remote areas

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Almost two-thirds of the world does not have access to high-speed internet, but Google is determined to change that. Unfortunately, setting up an affordable infrastructure in remote areas is beyond even a huge multinational corporation's capabilities, which is why the company had to devise a completely out-of-the-box solution called Project Loon. As part of the project, Google recently launched a series of internet-enabled balloons into the stratosphere over New Zealand to provide broadband connectivity to rural areas.

The idea is to create a floating network about 20 km (12.4 miles) above the Earth's surface, high enough to avoid any adverse weather or airplane traffic. At that altitude, the winds are more mild, only 5 to 20 mph (8 to 32.2 km/h), but still strong enough to carry the balloons to other areas. If they need to go in a different direction, they can also be raised or lowered to catch a wind current heading on an alternative course.

Each balloon's envelope is made from sheets of polyethylene plastic and measures 15 x 12 m (49 x 39 ft) when inflated. They're built to withstand higher pressures than a typical weather balloon, but can also vent some gas to relieve pressure and have a parachute at the top to slowly land if needed. Google's researchers estimate the balloon envelope could keep the whole device aloft for over 100 days before it needs to be recovered.

The balloon carries a box of electronics beneath it, which contains radio antennas to communicate with the ground and other balloons, GPS, flight sensors, instruments to monitor weather conditions, and the necessary circuit boards for controlling the whole system. An array of solar panels provides 100 watts of power to the electronic components and can charge an on-board battery within four hours for use at night. Between this and traveling with the wind, the balloons operate entirely on renewable energy sources.

According to Google, Project Loon's network can provide connection speeds comparable to 3G, with each balloon covering an area on the ground about 40 km (24.8 miles) in diameter. Rather than using Wi-Fi, the balloons connect to an internet service on the ground and broadcast to homes via a radio frequency over ISM bands. This avoids interference while also reaching much greater distances. Anyone wishing to connect will have to install a special antenna on the outside of their home to receive the signal and decrypt the data.

Google has also established a Loon Mission Control to keep track of the balloons at all times, ensuring they remain operational and spaced apart correctly. Mission control will also coordinate with local aviation authorities on where the balloons are expected to travel.

Project Loon launched its very first balloon near Lake Tekapo, New Zealand on the morning of Jun. 14, 2013. Over the following days, the team released a total of 30 balloons into the skies above New Zealand's South Island to test out their capabilities with a small group of volunteers.

The research team is working closely with testers to determine how viable a balloon-borne internet service actually is. If all goes well, Google hopes its project could not only bring affordable, high-speed internet to remote locations, but also re-establish internet quickly following a disaster.

Anyone in New Zealand interested in become a tester for Project Loon can apply through the official website. For now though, you can check out the video below to see one of Google's internet-enabled balloons launched near a sheep farm.

Source: Project Loon

About the Author
Jonathan Fincher Jonathan grew up in Norway, China, and Trinidad before graduating film school and becoming an online writer covering green technology, history and design, as well as contributing to video game news sites like Filefront and 1Up. He currently resides in Texas, where his passions include video games, comics, and boring people who don't want to talk about either of those things. All articles by Jonathan Fincher

Thats cool, this could be really interesting if they can make it work. Was thinking to myself that this would likely end up being prohibitively expensive for anyone using the internet, but if one balloon can cover 40 sq KM thats pretty good, if you could get 20-40+ people paying out 40-50$ or something, it could do ok.

It might not be super profitable for Google but it would be a great way to test new technology and ideas and expand Google's presence in the world, good PR.


I would be interested to know how many connections can be handled at any one time, and at what point this would start significantly affecting the speed.

Calum Mchaffie

I'm no meteorologist, but since these are not tethered, it would seem you'd have to launch a new balloon every day to account for drift. Will there be people at sea gathering up the old ones? Good idea, particularly after a disaster when the grid's down, but long term makes me wonder if they're worth the cost.


Something has gone terribly wrong somewhere Google searches are not working as well as they use to, and now this.


heheh - would this be new cloud-based infrastructure?

Taryn East

Hope this works. If it does, then maybe ships at sea could offer affordable internet access.


Now that solar powered airplanes have been created that can fly indefinitely, why wouldn't those be a better alternative? The planes would be far easier to keep in position, and wouldn't have the 100 day life limitation.

Bob Vious

LiftPort Group and +US are doing this tethered but at a lower altitude

LiftPort Group (LPG) along with the Communication Team (+US) have not only demonstrated their Tethered Tower concept but have also secured KickStarter funding to complete the first stage of their overall business plan, which is to produce a Lunar Space Elevator by 2020! Their successes allows them to offer localized (not Global) customized communication solutions on an as-needed basis, even in remote locations where infrastructure is not currently available.


Wow, talk about off the wall ideas. A 5 knot wind will move the balloon 120 miles in a day. If the ground coverage is actually only 25 miles in Diameter the coverage shadow would move out of range in 5 hours. The "ground control" would need to be a team of dedicated X box game enthusiasts trying to raise and lower the balloon up and down to catch unknown - probably non existent - alternate air currents. I can't wait for the follow up to the sheep farm video that tells us how this worked.

Just think, If the telcos had not shot down the Bill Gates satellite Internet in the Sky concept we would not be seeing giant Trojans floating above the sheep farms of southern NZ.

Richard Chesher

Nothing wrong with lighter than air vehicles for the job but they need to be powered vehicles and use a gas like methane or ammonia that is easier to contain.


Need this worldwide & have sites to replenish balloons in network & improve ground recetenna arrays for recieveing Internet Must for cruise ships at sea & in port to get Good Internet

Stephen Russell

I'd wonder the inflatable solar power tower might not be an alternative version. The advertisement jack in the box inflatables come to mind, that and the power kites.


http://www.gizmag.com/unmanned-airship-silent-sentinel/27867/ One might think these UAV blimps might work better than the ballons they want to use. The UAV blimps could be kept in an area and be retrevable within that area while the balloons would be difficult to guide; IMO.


Another great example of POSITIVE thinking... When I read the comments I really wonder why ANYTHING EVER happened if it was left to the people who ONLY can reason why things can NOT be done. Google isn't Apple... Surely, there is a bottom line for them as well but this proves that the bottom-line isn't everything. I'm sure that market forces will provide the proper balance. Just keep governments and bureaucrats away from EVERYTHING because they WILL find a way to find a PC way to make progress impossible. And with their limited combined brain power it will probably TAXED out of extinction. Especially in New Zealand!

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