An update on Google's Project Loon

Image: A Project Loon balloon is launched in Brazil 

Project Loon — the research program with the ambitious vision of delivering global Internet coverage is well underway. And with some luck, by the end of this year we’ll have a great indication of what the project means for the dream of universal Internet access.

See Cleanleap Drones, balloons or satellites - which one will lead to $300 Billion in growth? for original article. Project Loon is a flagship of X (previously Google X), the five-year old experimental projects lab fostering so-called ‘moonshot’ projects from Alphabet, the parent company behind Google.

Speaking plainly of the mission, project leader Mike Cassidy has said: ”It's a huge moonshot. A really big goal to go after…the power of the Internet is probably one of the most transformative technologies of our time."

He’s not wrong.

Background

By any measure Project Loon is an undertaking of truly global proportions — it involves establishing a fleet of high-altitude balloons that will form a network of Internet-carrying transceivers, and navigate their way about the Earth by catching winds found in the stratosphere — the lonely layer of atmosphere some 20km up (about twice the altitude of cruising airliners).

Despite the technological challenges — and there are many — the prize at the end of the road is immense, so much so that Project Loon was listed in MIT Technology Review’s list of Top 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2015.

According to the UN, there are 4.2 billion people on the planet without regular access to the Internet. Moreover, in the 48 UN-designated Least Developed Countries in the world, 90% of their populations are without any kind of Internet connectivity at all.

Lack of access is especially common in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. But it's in such regions where the Internet’s introduction would bring the most tremendous economic and social benefit by narrowing the digital divide.

Indeed, the UN have acknowledged Internet access as a key foundation for sustainable development (see, The State of Broadband, 2015, from the UN).

While taken for granted in developed countries, the infrastructure required for Internet access is expensive and tricky to establish. Unfortunately, to many communications companies it’s simply not cost-effective to install the cables required for Internet access.

Establishing a cheaper, more practical means of bringing Internet to unconnected regions — leap-frogging conventional ground based infrastructure — is therefore a critical pre-condition for advancement into the digital age for many countries.

The solution from Project Loon involves helium filled balloons, each carrying a small package of solar-powered communications devices. The balloons beam Internet coverage down to an area 80 kilometers in diameter using LTE technology — what you might know of as 3G or 4G.

Because the balloons will never be stationary, a key feature of the solution involves creating a large enough network of balloons that at least one balloon is always in range to provide Internet coverage. As one balloon floats away, another will take its place.

Cellular devices may connect to the Loon signal just as they would to Wi-Fi, with anticipated download speeds of up to 10Mbps — not far behind the US average.

What’s New?

Now in its fifth year, Project Loon has already accomplished a great deal and moved beyond prototyping of technology to full-scale, global tests.

After docking millions of miles in flight-time over several continents, the distances traveled by Loon balloons have presented the project's engineers with many new obstacles, but they’ve offered a proving ground for development of Loon’s key technologies.

In the last few years Loon navigation technology — software algorithms which determine where the balloons should travel — has been improved in tandem with development of ‘mission control’ facilities for managing the Project Loon system.

Positioning updates, which were at first provided once per day, are now provided several times an hour — helping to ensure balloons stay on course, and arrive at their intended destinations. In earlier days, the Loon system could bring a balloon to within hundreds of kilometers of its target destination. However, in early 2015 Google reported a balloon traveled 10,000 kilometers, arriving within 500 meters of its target.

The endurance of balloons has also been significantly increased thanks to successful iterations balloon design, allowing for much greater flight times. Around summer 2013, the balloons lasted some eight days; today the average flight duration is well over 100 days.

Another important development has been the construction of an ‘autolauncher’ to facilitate the launch of balloons. The autolauncher can fill, lift and launch balloons in under thirty minutes.

Image: The ‘Little Chicken’ autolauncher in Puerto Rico

These advances, all essential to the process of ‘scaling up’, are neatly described in the video below, and suggest Project Loon is now ready for far more comprehensive tests and real-world application.

Aside from technological improvements, Project Loon has grown the scale of its operations, which are so far concentrated in the Southern Hemisphere. Though official testing began in New Zealand in 2013, a year later it moved on to Australia and Brazil, and more recently to regions at the heart of its enterprise.

One country providing solid indications of how Project Loon may operate is Sri Lanka — a country with a population of over 20 million, but just 3.3 million mobile internet connections and 630,000 fixed line internet subscribers.

In July 2015, Google signed agreements with the Sri Lankan Information and Communication Technology Agency to deploy Loon technology country-wide. In return for a 25% stake in the venture, the government has announced it will allocate Project Loon the spectrum it requires for providing national coverage.

The effort is now firmly underway, and in February this year the Guardian reported one of three balloons to be used in these trials entered Sri Lankan airspace, having set off from South America.

If all goes to plan Sri Lanka will become only the second country in the world to gain full internet coverage using LTE technology (the other being the Vatican).

Country-wide testing through 2016 is also planned for Indonesia, where, in October 2015, Project Loon partnered with three of the nation's largest cellular operators.

Development in Indonesia is especially significant because it showcases the key strengths of the Project Loon solution. Indonesia is spread over an area some 740,000 miles across, featuring 17,000 islands — factors that represent huge barriers to introducing Internet access. So much so that presently a third of Indonesia’s population of 100 million lack Internet access. But these obstacles are immediately overcome with Loon — which may bring about widespread access in very rapid fashion, transforming the lives of millions.

Reported in TechCrunch and the India Economic times, just this month Project Loon entered into talks with operators in India too — paving the way for expansion into another country that stands to benefit hugely from the service.

Image: Sergey Brin, President, Alphabet Inc, presents ‘Loon for Indonesia’ alongside representatives from three Indonesian communications companies.

Initially it was planned that Google would purchase proprietary space on the radio spectrum so Loon balloons could operate independently of existing wireless networks. By show of events in India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, that plan has been scrapped, and instead balloons will be leased to cellular companies. They’ll then use parts of the spectrum they already own, together with existing ground-based cellular towers, to link up with Loon balloons and thereby vastly extend the coverage of their networks.

This is significant, as it shortcuts legislation and expense of Google’s direct involvement in spectrum licenses, whilst enhancing business of native cellular industries. Moreover, it turns potential competitors into partners: “Nearly every telco we talk to wants to do it,” Cassidy has said.

Next Steps

In the year ahead, the focus of Project Loon is on the establishing of a “quasi-continuous” service around the Southern Hemisphere. This is expected to feature some 300 balloons forming a ring around the 40th parallel covering Australia, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina.

“Maybe 90% of the time, people in that ring will have at least one balloon overhead and be able to use it.” (Cassidy)

The ambitions of Project Loon have much in common with those of bringing mobile communications to developing regions — notably the characteristic of leap-frogging ground-based communication infrastructure, and jumping straight to something wireless. Of course, with mobiles we’ve seen great success. There’s every chance that Project Loon is paving the way for another great revolution in digital communications.

Project Loon isn’t alone in its mission to bring about universal Internet access. Facebook, for one, have plans to establish their own Internet Service Provider (ISP), by way of ‘Aquila’: an unmanned, high-altitude solar-powered aircraft pitched to provide Internet coverage via laser technology (see, internet.org).

But for the time being, Project Loon certainly seems to be ahead of its competition and well on their way, however crazy the idea might seem.

 

Images Credit: All images via Project Loon Google+ 

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