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Last Updated: June 16th, 2013

"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

Liam Spradlin
Liam loves Android, design, user experience, and travel. He doesn't love ill-proportioned letter forms, advertisements made entirely of stock photography, and writing biographical snippets.

  • TobiasFunke

    Watching the video for this really made me want to buy a can of spray cheese and some crackers!

  • Apple4ever

    You call this innovative? Apple have iOS 7- flatter design, new control center, better multi-tasking, camera filters, and much more. So innovative.. ( •ॢ◡-ॢ)-♡

    • Chandradithya Raja P

      Don't forget the flashlight toggle. So innovative..

    • Julian Ooi

      The amount of innovation is mind boggling!

      • Mike Reid

        Absolutely, even starting with the puns and nicknames:

        Moon Lune

        Loony Balloonie

        The Canadian dollar coin features a loon (bird) and everyone now calls it a "loonie". The Loonie name could stick here too.

        I keep imagining a low altitude written advertising balloon as seen hovering over some US stadiums. Imagine the ads...

        "Post Disaster Cell/Data service donated by Google".

        "Google Internet Relief".

    • John Thomas

      You so stupid cuz android been have a flat design, we got widgets at shortcuts in the notification bar to toggle stuff, yall stole htc sense 4.1 task manager (look it up), and we been had filters in our camera app for a long time

      • Joshua P Nixon

        somebody doesn't understand sarcasm

        • Isaac Dedini

          Or grammar. @disqus_qlwAzyALB6:disqus you been have grammar nazi'd!

        • TejasEric

          In his defense sarcasm doesn't translate well over the internet. Although I am not going to jump on the grammar police bandwagon.

      • izhamsatria
  • lljktechnogeek

    So, basically an a mesh network using weather balloons? Pretty clever, actually, assuming they can manage the whole positioning problem.

    • Abhigyan

      And with literally zero use of non-renewable sources of power/energy.

      • CreativeHead

        Yes that's my favorite part.

  • Shaggyskunk

    I don't know why - but "target practice" seems to be a likely fly in the ointment, or should I say Pin - Don't want to burst your balloon - lol

    • Disqus Sucks

      They said Stratosphere. That means at least 35,000 feet depending on conditions, and it'll probably be more like 50,000 to stay well away from airplanes. You won't be able to see the balloons from the ground, let alone shoot them.

      • Shaggyskunk

        Oh - Just go with it - :-P
        Ground based cell sites have a hard enough time with 6 miles..... lol

        • Justin W

          I'm thinking it would have to work similar to satellite internet, especially since, like you said, a lot of wireless towers don't transmit over more around 10-ish miles in my experience.

  • NexusKoolaid

    And if a balloon pops... gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "the network is down".

    • http://GPlus.to/Abhisshack Abhisshack

      Ahahahaha

  • Henry

    Could they not just launch "enough" balloons such that there is always, more or less, one above you.

    A kind of internet balloon ring around the longitude they are talking about.

    • http://AndroidPolice.com/ Liam Spradlin

      The plan, as I understand it, is to launch and control the balloons so that the areas in need of connectivity can remain connected. As DeVaul mentions, one balloon would come along just as the other was leaving.

  • Freak4Dell

    This is what happens when hipsters are actually productive. Global internet access...through a fucking balloon.

    • Mikkel Georgsen

      But only the hipsters can use it.

      Clever but useless invention.

      • Freak4Dell

        Huh? This would be for the underprivileged. Those people can't afford scarves and lens-less designer frames, so they can't be hipsters.

        • Mikkel Georgsen

          Haha true but the underprivileged are so hip in a hipsters mind they barely have shoes much less a way to use a floating internet

  • Cletus

    "I reckon I can hit that there goggle balloon with this here 22 rifle.'

  • ins0mn1a

    i wonder what frequencies they use for broadcast. sounds like a regulatory nightmare, given that the thing needs to be deployed globally in order to make sense. also, having it fully solar powered sounds like a major challenge: non-stop two-way high throughput radio link at these distances, wow. and what about nighttime (batteries, obviously, and those are heavy...)? i would love to read more details about the technology they are using.

    • Matthew Fry

      If anyone is capable of creating a world wide global internet connection, it's Google. They should make a donation page. "Your donation doesn't guarantee you a connection to the Internet, you're already here (but we may get to you eventually). Your donation guarantees people you've never met, people who desperately want to connect but cannot, a chance to be part of the global community."

  • Mikkel Georgsen

    Clever but solves nothing - the people who do not have internet access are not sitting with their offline computers or smartphones just waiting for the backbone to float by. They do not own any device with internet capability.

    Solve that first, and the network will follow automatically.

  • sheikh

    A network in the sky.... or a "sky net"