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Tech Saturday, June 15th 2013 at 12:00 pm

Google’s “Project Loon” Wants Balloons to Connect You to the Internet

We don't live in a world where our Internet is beamed down from stratosphere balloons, but we might be soon.

Google Balloon

If you live in an area that’s under-served by modern Internet infrastructure, you’re kind of missing out. The Internet is great, but you’re reading this on the Internet, so you probably know that already. Not everyone is so lucky. There are billions of people without access to an Internet connection, but Google wants to change that — with balloons. Here’s how.

Google’s “Project Loon” wants to launch solar powered balloons more than 60,000 feet above sea level into the stratosphere. These balloons would beam the Internet down to land-based antennas, offering previously disconnected people access to all the information the Internet has to offer, and also videos of cats.

The program is still in early tests, but Google hopes to one day have thousands of these balloons in the skies. Of course they have obstacles to overcome, like the fact that balloons tend not to stay where you put them. To get over that problem, Google is using “variable buoyancy” which lets the balloon change altitude to find winds going in the right direction. If a balloon is getting blown too far to the north, it could drop down a little bit into some southerly wind.

It took some time to work out, and some balloons didn’t go where they were supposed to. That’s why Google is testing the balloons in New Zealand. It’s remote enough that the likelihood of a balloon drifting across hostile borders is minimal.

While testing the balloons, obviously some of them came back down to Earth sooner than expected. The antennae payload would disconnect from the balloon in cases of failure, and then fall back to Earth with a parachute. Google couldn’t always be the first on the scene to recover their equipment so they labeled it “HARMLESS SCIENCE EXPERIMENT” and offered a reward for its return.

Imagine you see a strange object fall from the sky with a parachute. You examine it, only to find the words “HARMLESS SCIENCE EXPERIMENT” on it with a number to call promising a reward. There’s probably no way that would cause any sort of alarm. It’s just a HARMLESS SCIENCE EXPERIMENT that fell from the sky. Nothing to see here.

There are still a lot of things to be worked out before Google launches a planet-wide balloon Internet, but things seem to be progressing. There’s no word yet about a possible date for Project Loon to hit the mainstream, but a few New Zealand homes already have balloon Internet.

(via Wired, image via Melanie Holtsman)

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