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Google’s Project Loon to Test Solar Balloon Powered Internet Network

Leave it to Google to come up with something so outlandish that even seasoned pundits have to do a double-take to make sure they read it right. Although they’ve brought us innovations like the self-driving car, Glass, Replay (to chart trending tweets), Street View (so easy to find a new doctor’s office now!), and calls from Gmail, Google may have lost us with the aptly named Project Loon, a plan that calls for sending solar-powered balloons aloft in an effort to make internet access more readily available. Yes, you read that right, but let’s recap all the same. They’re going to provide cheap, fast internet access for everyone. And they’re going to do it by sending balloons into the atmosphere at twice the altitude that airplanes fly at (they’ll float just shy of outer space), allowing the wind to push them here and there and the sun to power them, beaming down internet access at 3G speeds. It sounds positively loony, but if anyone can do it, Google gets my vote.

Mike Cassidy, the project lead, has stated that the goal of the project, which is still in the early planning stages, is to provide internet access to “rural, remote, and underserved areas” as well as offer a means of communication during natural disaster situations, when phone lines may not be available. And it cannot be denied that the idea of seamless internet, especially with devices that are powered by the sun, sounds pretty grand. Forgetting for the moment that it requires Google to send god-only-knows how may balloons into the atmosphere to make it work, it’s hard to believe that anyone would criticize affordable, speedy internet service that is actually, factually at the disposal of all. Okay, so they could be forming some kind of monopoly here, but let’s just see if they can successfully launch their balloons before we go there.

The first wave of solar-powered balloons, 30 in total, has already been released over New Zealand, specifically in the region of Canterbury, and Google has begun the task of trying to connect users in the region by way of this solar-powered cloud of sorts. But they’ve already got plans to launch in other areas, as well, presuming their initial foray into the stratosphere goes well. The balloons themselves look a little bit like jellyfish (sans tentacles). Made of polyethylene plastic, they are approximately 12 meters tall and 15 meters in diameter, and while that sounds pretty big, they’ll be floating so high in the atmosphere that the naked eye will not be able to detect them.

Each holds a solar panel meant to power the device indefinitely, along with transceivers that allow for communication with nearby balloons, as well as a ground station in their current region. When the balloons communicate with each other they form a sort of invisible netting across a region (although the ultimate goal is for it to stretch across the globe) that provides unbroken internet service. This signal is then sent down to the ground stations, which are equipped with a special antenna, developed by Google, that is designed to capture the transmission. In time, these antennas can be attached to homes for direct access to this online network. As you can see, it’s a rather precocious undertaking, but Google is no doubt up to the task.

Thus far, the technology giant is not making any promises. They’ve warned that Project Loon is dealing with experimental equipment and procedures and that there’s still a long way to go in developing the technology before it can be offered to the public at large. And currently, the system will have to be monitored by human technicians, although eventually they plan to have computers running the whole shebang. However, we could be witnessing the future of communications technology, a future in which our computing power flies overhead, sending data to transceivers, colocation services, and cloud computing terminals far below. It may sound like science fiction, but with Google at the helm it could soon be a reality.