“Balloons. That’s right. Balloons,” says the voice of a young girl in a video for Google’s latest endeavor: bringing the world online with massive balloons. The initiative, called Project Loon, comes from Google X, the experimental lab within the company whose sole purpose is to dream up big, borderline insane, ideas. Google X created self-driving cars and developed the augmented reality technology behind Google Glass, and now they’re trying to bring Internet to the 5 billion unconnected people around the world.
In America, the idea of regular access to the Internet is almost a given. There’s barely a square mile of the country that isn’t covered be some sort of Internet access, whether it’s though a cellular carrier, the cable company, DSL, or dial-up. The Internet can have tremendous effects on the quality of education and healthcare in previously remote areas. Google wants to bring the entire world online and into the 21st century.
For Google, balloons make sense. Their goal is to create a network of balloons that float 12 miles in the sky in the stratosphere over regions where it is otherwise too expensive to wire Internet. The 22-pound payload of each balloon contains a proprietary technology to wirelessly relay a 3G-like signal to the ground, which connects to another balloon like antenna on the ground that converts the signal so people can use it. Sophisticated electronics inside the balloon adjust the altitude allowing the balloon to sail in different atmospheric wind currents so the device doesn’t drift away.
Wired‘s Steven Levy reports that the initiative has been under development for two years. Development which is now culminating in a small scale test in Christchurch, New Zealand: 50 testers in a 5-mile range will see if they can access the Internet using the sky. By launching over 30 balloons in New Zealand, Google hopes to gauge the successes and downfalls of the current program so they can continuously develop the program and bring balloon-powered Internet to the globe.