"Many people don't realize … the majority of the world is not connected to the internet. How do we get cost-effective, inexpensive, and reliable connectivity to the remaining 5 or 6 billion people who don't have it?"
Chief Technical Architect Rich DeVaul poses this question in introducing the technology behind Project Loon – the newly (officially) announced project from Google X that aims to bring internet connectivity to "rural, remote, and underserviced areas," as well as those affected by natural disasters. The project doesn't seek to do this with a hulking wired infrastructure, however. No, Google plans to do this using the "effortless elegance" of balloons, combined with the power of stratospheric wind.
We've actually heard of Project Loon before, except it didn't have a catchy name. Reports of Google's ambition toward markets that are developing or underserviced have been going around at least since May. The project doesn't seem to be connected with Google's Makani acquisition, though this writer is still anxiously awaiting word on the awesome power-generating kites.
In the video above, DeVaul explains that the balloons can travel in groups, catching rides on stratospheric winds, which blow in particular directions. By essentially moving the balloon systems up and down, they can be easily repositioned, meeting up with or departing from each other with relative ease.
Of course, "relative" is the key word. As Google's official blog post on the project admits, balloons have their own set of challenges. In an apparent effort to figure out solutions to those challenges (primarily positioning and power), Project Loon is starting with a test bed in the Canterbury area of New Zealand, having launched thirty balloons this week (the most the project has ever launched to date), with fifty testers attempting to connect and use the network, which – at completion – will aim for 3G "or faster" speeds.
Speaking of testing, Wired got an inside look at Loon in New Zealand, revealing that the project has been underway for almost two years. Their detailed account of one of the team's first real-world tests follows the MacKenzies, recipients of a specialized house-mounted antenna explained in the introductory video. The very first civilian tester, according to Wired, was Charles Nimmo from the small town of Leeston, who chose Google as the first website he'd ever access via balloon internet, noting "it only seemed fair." By the way, Google has invited those in the Christchurch area to "see Project Loon up close" at a special "Festival of Flight" to be held from 10am to 2pm NZST.
As for ensuring that the eventual army of balloons is well-positioned and well-timed to serve those who will rely on their connectivity? Google promises the problem will be solved with "some complex algorithms and lots of computing power."
From its initial phase, the project will expand to countries "in the same latitude" as New Zealand.
If you're thinking this may be a late entry in Google's bevy of April Fool's projects, it isn't, though the team behind this moonshot is the first to admit it sounds a bit wacky: "that's part of the reason we're calling it Project Loon – but there's solid science behind it."
Source: Google Blog