Google's Loon refines processes, gets close to rolling out 'thousands' of balloons

Since launching a handful of balloons in New Zealand at its Project Loon launch in 2013, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) says it has flown millions of test kilometers around the world trying to learn what it takes to provide Internet connectivity with balloons.

As part of that mission, Google has been busy getting the balloons to be more durable and longer-lasting. Now the balloons can stay in flight more than 100 days, and engineers are figuring out how to manufacture, launch and recover the balloons when they're ready to come down, explains Mike Cassidy, project lead, Project Loon, in a video posted to YouTube on April 17.

What started out as an unlikely project--hence the "Loon" moniker--has turned out to be a successful orchestration of the high-flying balloons. The system uses LTE, with the idea being that anyone with an LTE smartphone or tablet will be able to get Internet access in remote and rural areas. Google partners with local telcos in each country. In New Zealand, for example, it's partnering with Vodafone. The balloons fly roughly 20 kilometers above the earth's surface, twice as high as commercial jets.

Source: Google/YouTube

It's staged such that when one balloon leaves a location, another moves into its place to continue providing connectivity. "In theory, this means that any individual balloon would provide connection in one place and then, days later, provide connection at another location at the opposite end of the world. In our latest long distance LTE test, this is exactly what we achieved," Google explained in a blog post last month.

At first it took days to tape together a balloon, but now, "we're getting close to the point where we can roll out thousands of balloons," Cassidy said in the video. From the beginning, "it was all we could do to launch one balloon a day. Now with our automated crane system, we can launch dozens of balloons a day for every crane we have."

To steer one balloon left or right, "you actually go up or down, and that's because in the stratosphere, the wind goes slightly different direction at a different altitude," he said. To provide continuous Internet service, "we're talking a complex choreography where thousands of balloons are being steered and programmed all in an automated fashion" so the next balloon comes just at the right time to take the other one's place.

The mission control system allows it to track every balloon and provide coverage exactly where people need it. "We can track the location and project the trajectory of every balloon from the moment we launch it," to the time it's in the air and all the way until it's time for its descent on the ground, Cassidy said.

In a blog post shared via Google Hangouts last year, Google revealed some of the lessons it had learned. One of them had to do with the best form of footwear to use when the manufacturing team needs to walk on the balloon envelopes: "very fluffy socks" to ensure the least amount of friction. That discovery refined the automated manufacturing process so the balloons would last longer in the stratosphere.

Ultimately, the goal is to bring the Internet to the two out of three people around the world who do not have Internet access today. The project has even successfully flown balloons in the tropics and arctic regions.

For more:
- see this ComputerWorld story
- see this Business Insider story

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