updated 06:49 am EDT, Tue June 17, 2014
Balloon-based networking project upgrades to LTE, extends flight time
Google is stepping up its efforts in Project Loon one year after first announcing it, by performing more testing. The high-altitude balloon-based network project recently tested the scheme's effectiveness in Brazil, including the effect of the equator on balloon launches, and the use of LTE technology instead of Wi-Fi for potentially faster cellular connections.
The basic idea of the project is to create a network of high-altitude balloons floating around the world for long periods, wirelessly connecting to each other and ground stations to create a non-static network for Internet access. The ultimate aim is for Loon to provide Internet access to remote and disconnected areas, with the scheme also able to fill in black spot areas in developed markets out of reach of typical broadband services. By switching to standard LTE for its networking, users have enjoyed connection speeds hitting 22MB/s with a ground antenna and 5MB/s for mobile devices.
The initial tests in New Zealand allowed for the balloons to float for a few days, though now Wired reports balloons can stay in the air for 75 days, and some even longer. Balloon Ibis 152 has floated for over 100 days so far, while an earlier Ibis 162 managed to travel around the world three times before returning to land. The balloons control their altitude thanks to a connection with Google servers, and while hovering at around 60,000 feet at temperatures as low as -40C (-40 Fahrenheit), they can travel at speeds of up to 100mph.
Google X project director Mike Cassidy is aiming for routine flights of 100 days and 100 balloons in the air simultaneously in the next year, followed by a full ring of 300 to 400 balloons circling the earth. Astro Teller, the head of the division, hopes for more from the project. "On Loon's two-year birthday, I would hope, instead of running experiments, we'll have a more-or-less permanent set of balloons. In one or several countries, you will turn on your phone and talk to the balloons. Yes, Loon will be offering a service."
It is possible the lessons learned from Loon will make an appearance in other Google projects. The company bought Titan Aerospace last year, and acquired low-cost satellite start-up Skybox Imaging earlier this month for $500 million. If used in conjunction with a rumored partnership with Virgin Galactic, this sets the stage for a similar system using a network of satellites to provide Internet access.