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Quickfire Science: Project Loon

Thu, 20th Jun 2013

Dominic Ford, Kate Lamble

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This week Google launched 30 huge plastic balloons in New Zealand to test theProject Loon Balloon technology for ‘project Loon’; a planned balloon network which could bring internet access and mobile phone signals to remote locations and countries where the networks on the ground are not fully developed. Here’s the Quickfire Science…

The balloons are made of layers of polythene 15 meters wide and 12 meters high – and are filled with helium so they can float into position.

Each balloon will ascend to an altitude of 20 km, to a layer of the atmosphere known as the stratosphere. At that height, you’d need a pair of binoculars to see them in the sky.

At this altitude, weather balloons usually end up bursting, since the helium inside them expands as they rise. However, the multiple layers of plastic in Google’s balloons are designed to stop them from popping.

Anyone who wants to use the network will need to attach an antenna to their home – this will send a signal to the nearest balloon. The data will then be relayed from balloon to balloon before being sent back to a ground station on earth.

Each balloon can provide internet access over distances of up to 40km, and because they are so high up, buildings and hills won’t create signal black spots.

The system will aim to deliver data at a similar speed to 3G networks already used by mobile phones – but might eventually be even faster.

The balloons carry solar panels, which will provide all of the power needed to keep the on-board radio antennas and electronics running.

The balloons will not be tethered and will float around naturally in the stratosphere. However the team will be able to direct the balloons to move up and down, which they hope will allow them to switch between layers of wind which move in different directions and at different speeds.

By using the wind to blow the balloons around in this way, they hope to be able to build automated computer systems which will keep the balloons in formation.

Over time, currents like the jet stream will cause the balloons to drift over large distances – but the team hope that the balloons will eventually form a global network, and those serving South Africa may, for example, eventually serve South America and come around the globe again.


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It's good that they are flying the balloons at 20km altitude (twice the cruising altitude of commercial aircraft).

I hope there is an aircraft transponder or retroreflector on the balloon, so that planes can spot the balloons as they rise through commercial aircraft lanes at 0-10km - and as they descend back through through this safety-critical zone when the helium gas is lost after 100 days.

There are some military aircraft that fly around 20km altitude - and  these aircraft don't use radar or transponders so they are harder to detect. It is important that the balloon has an active transponder regularly transmitting its latitude, longitude & altitude so that military aircraft know that the balloon is there. evan_au, Sat, 22nd Jun 2013

Damn, this is Google at its best :) When they disconnect their visions from mundane politics and start to look at what future we all would like to see. Always liked Balloons and Zeppelin's. And the difference between taking a Boeing 747 relative a zeppelin is that in one case you want to get there, in the other you enjoy the journey. Modern life is very much about 'getting there' and achieve. And people act as if it is a rule from God that we all should run through our lives, being 'productive'. A lot of bs, well, if you ask me. yor_on, Sat, 22nd Jun 2013

That would be cool. I can't wait to hack a balloon  ;D Schema, Mon, 15th Jul 2013

I can imagine good network coverage in the mid-Atlantic, and mid-Pacific, which are some of the more sparsely populated regions in the world.

Is that about a 40 km one-way coverage, or about 6400km2 coverage per balloon?  The total surface area of Earth is about 510,072,000 km2, or about 80,000 balloons.  Actually, I had expected the number to be a bit higher, but that still is a lot of balloons to maintain.  And, since helium and hydrogen both slowly leak out of their containers, the network will need constant maintenance.

All the antennas would have to be designed to be omnidirectional, or have some kind of a balloon tracker built in. CliffordK, Mon, 15th Jul 2013

This is a great idea and probably one of those that came from Google's policy of allowing staff to work on their own projects for a percentage of the week. This would be very useful in rural parts of Australia. JSparkle, Fri, 16th Aug 2013

Once the electronics were sufficiently developed, the balloon would probably carry an electronically steered antenna array, so there is a strong, directional signal towards the people wanting to communicate to the balloon, without wasting much power transmitting in unwanted directions, as tends to happen with an omnidirectional antenna.

Modern wireless systems often have multiple antennas on the transmitter and receiver, so they can form multiple connections between each transmitting and receiving antenna, a technique known as "Multiple-Input/Multiple Output". evan_au, Fri, 16th Aug 2013

ballons can fly anywhere . they have to be tied to a spot in order to transmit signal , also baloons are highly affected by winds , sometimes heavy winds make baloon to collapse down , this kind of system is risky . suffering from pois, Sat, 8th Feb 2014

yeah, it sounds way easier to just launch a balloon then to build a huge dish. but honestly how long would it last before you had to replace it. ScientificSorcerer, Mon, 10th Feb 2014

Much as I would have liked to take a trans Atlantic trip on the Hindenburg I very much doubt that I could have afforded it , I wonder what the cost was in modern terms syhprum, Wed, 12th Feb 2014

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