We’ve seen Google accomplish some pretty remarkable things when the company puts its collective mind to it. In recent years, Google has really been pushing the envelope with its so called “moonshots” like Google Glass and self-driving cars.
Google has now announced its latest in the moonshot series out of Google[x]. It’s called “Project Loon” because the idea is so crazy. They’re sending up balloons around the world to increase Internet access for all, including rural, remote and underserved areas. Many of us take Internet for granted, but as the company notes, it’s still unaffordable for two out of every three people on the planet.
“There are many terrestrial challenges to Internet connectivity—jungles, archipelagos, mountains,” writes project lead Mike Cassidy in post on the Google blog. “There are also major cost challenges. Right now, for example, in most of the countries in the southern hemisphere, the cost of an Internet connection is more than a month’s income.”
The plan is to build a ring of balloons flying around the earth in altitudes twice as high as those traveled by commercial planes. Google has already built a system to do this, which uses complex algorithms, and “lots of computing power”. The balloons beam Internet access to people on the ground, and the company says speeds are similar to those of 3G networks, or even faster.
“Balloons, with all their effortless elegance, present some challenges,” writes Cassidy. “Many projects have looked at high-altitude platforms to provide Internet access to fixed areas on the ground, but trying to stay in one place like this requires a system with major cost and complexity. So the idea we pursued was based on freeing the balloons and letting them sail freely on the winds. All we had to do was figure out how to control their path through the sky. We’ve now found a way to do that, using just wind and solar power: we can move the balloons up or down to catch the winds we want them to travel in. That solution then led us to a new problem: how to manage a fleet of balloons sailing around the world so that each balloon is in the area you want it right when you need it.”
That’s where all that computing power and those complex algorithms come in.
Is this just crazy enough to work?
Well, as you can see (if you watched the videos) they’re already getting the ball rolling. Google has already started a pilot program in New Zealand with 50 users trying to test connection with the balloons. They launched 30 balloons last week. Google says it will look to find partners at the same latitude as New Zealand over time as it expands the pilot.