Innovation Profile: Google’s Project Loon

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By Omar Kergaye

According to Google’s Project Loon homepage, an estimated two thirds of the world’s population does not have access to the Internet. This figure is astonishingly high considering how reliant people today are on Internet access. Without the Internet, there would have been no way for Egyptian citizens, among other Middle Eastern countries, to rally together and protest against their unjust government. Without the Internet, micro-loans that allow people to start small simple businesses would not be possible. Internet access is more than a luxury, it is a necessity.

Project Loon aims to provide cheap, reliable internet access to the most remote areas, potentially covering the entire world. Simply put, a network of balloons fly in the sky with a control system and special circuit boards. The balloons are able to communicate with each other and the earth.

The balloons were made by Raven Aerostar, a manufacturing company, which used .076mm polyethylene plastic super pressurized with helium. The electronics on the balloons are powered through solar panels that produce an estimated 100W of power, fully charging the onboard batteries so that they are able to run at night.

They are able to navigate by changing elevation. Using a pump dubbed the “Croce,” the balloons decide what elevation to maintain themselves at, which is typically between 10 and 60 Km above the surface. Different elevations contain different speeds and directions of wind. Using weather data the Loon team on the ground is able to make sure the balloons are evenly spaced out and don’t interfere with commercial aircraft, satellites or migratory birds. At these high altitudes, the temperatures can fall to -80C and the balloons are exposed to much more UV radiation than normal. If an unexpected failure of the balloon occurs there is a parachute built in so that they do not cause damage when they fall out of the sky. The estimated lifespan of the balloons is 100 days, and Google claims its newer versions could stay aloft for 200 days, or close to half a year.

Project Loon began testing out its balloons in June of 2013. Thirteen total balloons were launched in new the South Island of New Zealand covering a small area. The next test is to have the balloons create a ring around the southern hemisphere, providing nonstop service to those who need it.

Of course, not everything goes as well as initially planned. Even with the backup parachute some balloons have crashed in unintended areas. In May of 2014, a balloon crashed in a remote area of Washington State, onto some power lines. Google alerted the FAA that the balloon was going down so that no planes were at risk. It is unclear exactly what caused the balloon to crash, but luckily nobody was harmed.

Another, more drastic example, occurred in New Zealand, the testing site for the balloons. On June 20, 2014, the Emergency Services in New Zealand were scrambled when they thought a plane was going down. A rescue helicopter and members of a local constabulary rushed towards the crash site thinking that there was an emergency. Although nobody was injured, Google agreed to handle any fees associated with the panic.

Project Loon is a new take on the standard drone. It is not a menacing fighter jet, nor a clunky quadcopter, just harmless balloons. By using these balloons in new, innovative ways, whether its gathering weather data or sending data to those without,  Google is effectively using its army of puffy drones to make our lives a little easier.