You all know Google as the place to search for information for your research projects. However Google works on a lot of other, very different stuff as well. So much so, in fact, that it started a bunch of other companies. One of these companies is called Loon, which used to be part of a group called X. This group works on futuristic projects. It is focused on finding simple solutions to big global problems.
The Loon project was set up to address a problem identified some years ago: The internet is a way of life for about 1/3 people on earth. But 2/3 of the people on earth do not have access to it as they live in areas that are ‘remote’ or far from power grids, sources of electricity, and wiring.
The team at Google X designed and started something called the ‘Project Loon’, where they send hot air balloons (‘loon is short for ‘balloon’!) into the sky, loaded with equipment that can catch internet and cellular signals from towers on the ground, and transmit it to receivers set up around the world.
How does this work? They are huge polyethylene balloons (each one the size of a tennis court!) that carry the receiving and transmission equipment. They are solar powered and can be controlled by software and by people on the earth.
Multiple balloons are put up in the stratosphere and they work as a group of ‘floating cell towers’. A signal is sent from a cell tower on the ground, to the nearest balloon in the air, is bounced and shared across the other balloons, and then beamed to the ground in an area that is not otherwise connected. The balloons fly at a height of 19 – 20 km (12 miles) above the earth, in the stratosphere. Planes fly between 9 and 12 km high in the sky, so the balloons are much higher than them and do not pose a risk to the flights. The signal from the loon can be transmitted over an area of 80 km on the earth. The balloons are made to last for about 100 days, after which they are brought down to earth in a controlled descent.
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That’s cool! So where does it stand? When we wrote about this in 2017, they were testing out the technology in parts of the world such as Australia, the Vatican City, and Sri Lanka. Since then, the project has been tested out in some situations, including in 2017 in Puerto Rico in an emergency situation, when a hurricane destroyed cell towers. They were able to deliver phone services to 200,000 people there at that time! They have done similar projects in Peru and Mozambique more recently.
Last week, Loon launched 35 balloons into the air above Kenya, and with a Kenyan telecommunications provider, will be providing 4G LTE services (wireless broadband) to the region. This will give more people phone and internet access there.
Why is this a benefit? If this works consistently, it will be a much cheaper way to get phone and internet access to people, because it does not require anyone to lay down expensive cables on and under ground, or to build as many tall cell towers.
And what do we watch out for? For starters, it will be good to see how robust this is, and how long the balloons can actually consistently deliver service. We will have to watch to see if the balloons get more physically damaged than anticipated. In addition, this technology requires that people in those remote areas have devices that are capable of accepting these 4G LTE signals.
Loon: https://loon.com/ and The New York Times
Written by: Sunaina Murthy