For the lucky few that live in developed countries, having access to fast reliable Internet is a no-brainer. It is therefore easy to forget that over five billion people or a majority of the world is not as fortunate. But if search giant Google has its way, that may soon, be a thing of the past.
On June 16th, 2013, the California-based company launched 30 giant helium filled balloons into the stratosphere above New Zealand. Inside each 49ft. diameter sphere were powerful transmitters capable of emitting 3G-speed Internet signals to an area of 780 square miles or about twice the size of New York City. The balloons in turn, received their signals from ground stations that have been established about 60 miles apart.
For the initial experiment 50 brave residents agreed to volunteer for the project, which was so secretive that they had no idea what they were signing up for and why the company was fitting their homes with basketball size receivers that closely resembled the iconic red Google Map pins. But on Sunday, June 16th, the mystery was finally solved! - As the balloons floated within signal reach the testers were instantly connected and treated to a few minutes of the World Wide Web!
Among them was Charles Nimmo, a farmer and entrepreneur in Leeston, a small town in New Zealand's South Island. As the balloon floated over his area, it allowed him to connect online for a full 15 minutes during which he managed to check the weather and a few other things. Charles, who decided to abandon satellite Internet service after being saddled with hefty bills, was happy to have connectivity for even that short a period - Of course, when Project Loon as it is being dubbed, goes into full launch, there will be enough balloons floating around to ensure uninterrupted service. And thanks to the fact that they are be remote-controlled, the balloons can be guided and kept clustered around regions that most it.
The brainchild of Google's X Lab, the same geniuses that are responsible for bringing us driver-less cars and Google Glasses, the translucent balloons which for most part are not visible because they float so high, are a bold attempt by the company to connect the world with what they believe is the most transformative technology of our time - The Internet.
And, while they may appear to be like ordinary balloons there were tremendous technological challenges that had to be surmounted. First and foremost was that of finding the right material to build a strong, light durable balloon that could handle the harsh temperatures, as well as, the stratosphere's pressure swings. For this the engineers sought advice from experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and the US Defense Department.
Then there was the issue of fitting in a green rechargeable power source that would keep the giant airships floating around until they needed to be brought down. This was solved by dangling card table-sized solar panels that require just fours hours of sunlight to collect and store enough power, to keep the balloons afloat for an entire day. In order to bring in balloons for maintenance or replacement, the company has a built-in mechanism to herd them to a collection point. Incase of a malfunction, they will guided back to earth by a parachute.
If everything goes according to plan, the company plans to launch 300 Internet balloons clustered in a ring above New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina.
Besides alleviating the cost of laying ground fiber in rural areas the balloons also help provide connectivity in rough terrain where it is impossible to do so. Given that each building or residence has to be fitted with the receivers whose cost has not been revealed, and the fact the company has to establish ground stations across the globe, Google's ambitious vision to connect the world, may take a little time - But given the company's past record of successes, there is very little doubt in most people's mind that Project Loon will eventually accomplish its goal!
Resources: Guardian.co.uk, Dailymail.co.uk