Google tests balloons to beam internet from near space


The giant balloons carrying computer equipment are being launched in New Zealand

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Google is launching balloons into near space to provide internet access to buildings below on the ground.

About 30 of the superpressure balloons are being launched from New Zealand from where they will drift around the world on a controlled path.

Attached equipment will offer 3G-like speeds to 50 testers in the country.

Access will be intermittent, but in time the firm hopes to build a big enough fleet to offer reliable links to people living in remote areas.

It says that balloons could one day be diverted to disaster-hit areas to aid rescue efforts in situations where ground communication equipment has been damaged.

But one expert warns that trying to simultaneously navigate thousands of the high-altitude balloons around the globe's wind patterns will prove a difficult task to get right.

Airborne for months

Google calls the effort Project Loon and acknowledges it is "highly experimental" at this stage.

What are superpressure balloons?

Superpressure balloons are made out of tightly sealed plastic capable of containing highly pressurised lighter-than-air gases.

The aim is to keep the volume of the balloon relatively stable even if there are changes in temperature.

This allows them to stay aloft longer and be better at maintaining a specific altitude than balloons which stretch and contract.

In particular it avoids the problem of balloons descending at night when their gases cool.

The concept was first developed for the US Air Force in the 1950s using a stretched polyester film called Mylar.

The effort resulted in the Ghost (global horizontal sounding technique) programme which launched superpressure balloons from Christchurch, New Zealand to gather wind and temperature data over remote regions of the planet.

Over the following decade 88 balloons were launched, the longest staying aloft for 744 days.

More recently, Nasa has experimented with the technology and suggested superpressure balloons could one day be deployed into Mars's atmosphere.

Each balloon is 15m (49.2ft) in diameter - the length of a small plane - and filled with lifting gases. Electronic equipment hangs underneath including radio antennas, a flight computer, an altitude control system and solar panels to power the gear.

Google aims to fly the balloons in the stratosphere, 20km (12 miles) or more above the ground, which is about double the altitude used by commercial aircraft and above controlled airspace.

Google says each should stay aloft for about 100 days and provide connectivity to an area stretching 40km in diameter below as they travel in a west-to-east direction.

The firm says the concept could offer a way to connect the two-thirds of the world's population which does not have affordable net connections.

"It's pretty hard to get the internet to lots of parts of the world," Richard DeVaul, chief technical architect at Google[x] - the division behind the scheme - told the BBC.

"Just because in principle you could take a satellite phone to sub-Saharan Africa and get a connection there, it doesn't mean the people have a cost-effective way of getting online.

Project Loon antenna Special antennas have been fitted to the homes of test volunteers in New Zealand

"The idea behind Loon was that it might be easier to tie the world together by using what it has in common - the skies - than the process of laying fibre and trying to put up cellphone infrastructure."

'Low risk'

Previous proposals to provide connectivity from the upper atmosphere suggested floating high-altitude platforms that stayed in one place and were tethered to the ground.

Google rejected this idea as it involved fighting the winds, meaning the equipment would have to be large, expensive and limited to a fixed area.

But using free-floating balloons introduces another problem: how to ensure they are where they are supposed to be.

"We didn't want them to go just wherever the winds took them, we wanted them to go where the internet is needed on the ground," said Mr DeVaul.

"You have to cause them to move up or down just a little bit through the stratosphere to catch the appropriate wind - which is how we steer them.

"So we have to choreograph a whole ballet of this fleet, and that requires some impressive computing science and a whole lot of computing power."

Project Loon balloon Electronics powered by solar panels hang from beneath the balloons

The balloons will communicate with Google's "mission control" where computer servers will carry out the calculations needed to keep them on track, monitored by a small number of engineers.

The software makes adjustments to each balloon's altitude to take advantage of forecast wind conditions, and nudges the balloons up or down to find a more favourable stream when the predictions are not accurate.

Since the equipment is dependent on solar power, the algorithms must also ensure there is enough charge left in the batteries to allow them to carry on working as they travel through the night.

At the end of their working life, the software initiates a controlled descent so that the kit can be recovered by teams of locally-based employees.

"They have aviation transponders on them and we're in constant contact with civil aviation authorities while the balloons are going up and coming down," Mr DeVaul added.

"They have flashing lights and radar reflectors, so as far as aviation hazards go these Loon balloons present very low risk to aircraft.

"And they also pose low risk to anybody on the ground because even in the unlikely scenario that one suddenly and unexpectedly fails, they have parachutes that are automatically deployed."

Project Loon graphic Google says the balloons should not pose a threat to commercial aircraft

A group of about 50 testers based in Christchurch and Canterbury, New Zealand, have had special antennas fitted to their properties to receive the balloons' signals.

Google now plans to partner with other organisations to fit similar equipment to other buildings in countries on a similar latitude, so that people in Argentina, Chile, South Africa and Australia can also take part in the trial.

Tough challenge

The search firm is not the first to pursue such an idea. An Arizona-based firm, Space Data, already provides blimp-based radio repeaters to the US Air Force to allow it to extend communications coverage.

Project Loon balloon Project Loon balloons are made of plastic just 3mm (0.1in) thick

Another Orlando-based firm, World Surveillance Group, sells similar equipment to the US Army and other government agencies.

However, they typically remain airborne for up to a few days at a time rather than for months, and are not as wide-ranging. One expert cautioned that Google might find it harder to control its fleet than it hoped.

"The practicalities of controlling lighter-than-air machines are well known because of the vagaries of the weather," said Prof Alan Woodward, visiting professor at the University of Surrey's department of computing.

"It's going to take a lot of effort to make these things wander in an autonomous way and I think it may take them a little longer to get right than they might believe."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    O look everybody just as the G8 is gathering look what we Google are doing for disaster areas never mind that people canoot feed themselves but at least they can log on to Facebook with their phone (if its charged) and tell everybody how hungry they are.

    I must be getting old and cynical

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Since Sputnik we've cluttered up space around our planet with countless pieces of debris which pose a danger not only to the thousands upon thousands of satellites which blanket the earth, but potentially (eventually) inhabitants on earth itself when they lose orbit. Now we're going to do the same with our upper atmosphere? Internet is not necessarily a necessity...

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    @108 Pollowick

    Pl. -æ , rarely -as."
    Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition (1989)

    How long have they been working with words? Over 150 years.

    Use the best professional institution on words if it's a technical question about words.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    Helium needed for these balloons is becoming rare as its a finite resource, it is needed for medical and scienfic research, just to fill in balloons for Internet access for remote area is point less.

    I can understand the need for disaster areas but for normal use it would be better to develop cheap two way satellite Internet.

  • Comment number 116.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    Average weather balloon duration 90 minutes from take off to max altitude and land, ends up 30 to 60 Km away depending on wind.

    Google plan a duration of 100 days at altitude, avg wind up there = 55 Km/hour, est distance balloon will travel = 132,000 Km, then descend, where that will be nobody knows. To make it even more complicated the wind speed and direction varies N/S of equator and season.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    So who owns the skies up that high, and would they have to pay for a fly-by or is this just another way of avoiding tax?

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    We live in an interconnected world. The idea of a sovereign nation is as outdated as the greek city states

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    27. nbarmadillo
    I am currently in rural Wiltshire and to call the signal for my dongle intermittent would be a complement.

    Maybe your 'dongle' is not big enough !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    The first programmable computer (Colossus), the creation of the internet (National Physical Laboratory), Britain’s first Home PC (the Beeb), the first Computer Literacy programme and this web-site were all funded by PUBLIC not private money. Following the argument advanced below by Google Trolls and allied libertarian swivel-eyed-loons, when will our investment in R & D be repaid?

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    The google balloons can air-drop mail to rural areas once the Royal Mail has been privatised and the new private owners abolish the universal rate. Then google can steam open all the mail to collect even more data.


  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    108, 100, 88 and 94 Is the word I want pedants or pedantics?

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    @100. FisherOfTruth

    So what ... a load of rubbish just taken from a couple of incorrect newspaper references.

    Try speaking the professional engineering institutions - and the plural is Antennas.

    Look at the UK Chambers Dictionary: and it gives Antennas.

    How long have I worked with Antennas? nearly 40 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    great idea Google, because as i'm trekking across the Sahara, i may miss out on the hundreds of Russian girls that want to meet me.
    Or maybe i'm missing out on an amazing offer from the latest online Casino.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    I almost feel like I have paid for this with the lack of tax paid by Google in the UK.


  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    This is not a new idea. There was a business in York called Skylinc which had plans for tethered blimps (aerostats) delivering broadband and other services to remote areas. Also Boeing was working on a very large geostationary stratospheric airship around 2005.Very hi-tech and difficult to implement. Skylinc failed because of lack of funding, but a great idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.


  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    I hope they will do this over the forgotten county of Leicestershire; when I was a kid (I'm only 27) there was a power cut at least 3 times a week for 5 years, and the water was cut off due to burst pipe most months. The internet was but a dream.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    As Baldrick would say 'I have a cunning plan'. That is, to put Google outside of all judicial and taxation territories!

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Tether one over the UK! We need universal broadband not HS2!

    Actually I suspect this will be a nonsense, it sounds vastly too expensive especially if they constantly have to come down every 100 days. Then wandering about, connection intermittent, 3G? Is it capable of millions of good top connection speeds?
    Highly Experimental, possible, probably. Practical, unlikely. Affordable unlikely.


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