Google's Project Loon combines ballooning with telecommunications, with the hope of one day inexpensively connecting billions of people around the world to the internet with a global network of balloons. It's a science experiment so crazy, it might just work – and we were there for an exclusive sneak peek to see it all happen.
The Canterbury Plains in New Zealand has for the past week played home to one of Google's most out there projects. The global technology company has been launching large balloons with radio equipment on board, to test if it's possible to provide internet coverage wirelessly through the air from a network of constantly moving balloon hotspots. A balloon-powered telecommunications network.
Project Loon is still in early development. The 30 or so balloons launched in New Zealand are prototypes, but the hope is one day future versions will provide wireless internet coverage in remote areas, places too poor to afford expensive wired infrastructure or in the aftermath of natural disasters where traditional networks may be unavailable.
Richard DeVaul speaks about Project Loon how a bright child might about a science fair project they are particularly proud of. He takes pride in explaining what each component does, how it operates within the balloon system and is open about the many ways things can go wrong and what's been done to prevent that from happening.
DeVaul isn't the one in charge of Project Loon, although it's difficult to tell otherwise. He works as a rapid evaluator at Google X, the same secretive think tank and lab which came up with Google Glass. Its mission is to push the company towards new (and weird) ways of thinking and DeVaul's job is to research, evaluate and develop crazy ideas into commercially viable products.
"I'm paid to be productive in my failure," he explains to Idealog.
Project Loon is one of those ideas. The launches this week are the culmination of two years of hard work and research by DeVaul and the Google X team. Project Loon is the byproduct of another (secret) initiative DeVaul was unable to get off the ground due to issues of internet penetration around the globe. According to the United Nations, there were just over 2.3 billion people connected to the internet in 2011 – which means there's roughly 5 billion people who aren't currently participating on the world-wide ideas exchange. Project Loon is a way to build internet infrastructure in areas where it would otherwise be impossible, or commercially unviable to do so.
"The difference between no internet and a little bit of internet is massive in terms of potential for innovation. Just imagine what a village in Sub-Saharan Africa could do with this kind of connectivity," says DeVaul.
Harmless science experiment
Looking at one of the balloons up close, with its polystyrene casing and messy tangles of wire, you'd never guess that a multi-billion dollar company such as Google manufactured it. In fact, DeVaul says most of the parts can be picked up at any local electronics store. The goal is to keep the balloons light and inexpensive to manufacture en masse.
There are three main parts to the balloon: a gas envelope, a guidance and maneuvering system powered by solar cells, and a radio communication system to relay an internet connection and talk to mission control.
The balloon itself works much like a party balloon. The inside is filled with a lighter-than-air gas (in this case helium) which makes it buoyant and causes it to rise. Instead of using rubber, the Loon balloons use mylar which prevents it from stretching and popping at higher altitudes.
The secret sauce to the whole project is the technology onboard to keep the balloons steady at around 20 km above the Earth's surface. That altitude keeps the craft above commercial airline traffic, in a space mostly used by rockets "and secret spy probes". The mylar envelope contains a second chamber which, by using a solar-powered fan, can be filled with air or emptied. When filled, the balloon is heavier and descends; emptying lightens the balloon, causing it to rise. By doing this it's able to move up or down a 1.7 km range, which helps mission control pick favourable wind currents in the atmosphere.
The balloons aren't stationary for very long, constantly moving along with the wind. Which is why a full-fledged balloon network will require hundreds of these balloons roaming the globe to maintain a stable wireless connection.
At its peak, the balloons are able to provide 40 km of wireless internet coverage to receivers the ground. Cyrus Behroozi keeps the exact download and upload bitrates close to his chest – "It can vary" – although he says the prototypes launched in New Zealand are currently on the lower end of average broadband speeds.
Behroozi is in charge of the networking and telecommunication components for the balloon. Each payload carries two sets of radios – one to send signals to the ground station or subscribers, and another to communicate with other balloons. This balloon-to-balloon network is what carries the internet signal from a subscriber's house to a fixed line network, such as fibre backhaul. This mesh network is constantly adjusting as the balloons float past overhead, says Behroozi.
The communications systems on the balloons uses the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz radio spectrum, which are generally unlicensed around the world. This is to minimise the need to purchase costly spectrum licenses from local governments.
Kiwis are world-first
Charles Nimmo is a third-generation farmer and entrepreneur living on a plot of land in Leeston, about 40 minutes drive away from Christchurch. He's also the first non-Googler in the world to use Loon-powered internet.
Nimmo's run in with Google began about a month ago when he received a mysterious phone call from a research agency asking him if he wanted to take part in an exciting study, but not affording him any further details without signing a non-disclosure agreement. Being the adventurous chap that he is, Nimmo eventually consented – and that's when he learned about Google's ambitious plans.
"It was pretty wild," he says.
For a brief while on Monday, Nimmo and his wife Abigail were able to connect to the internet through the balloon network using a red receiver unit attached to the top of his house (provided by Google). Once connected, the first site he visited was Google, then in typical Kiwi fashion, Nimmo went on to check the weather because he had sheep to shear that afternoon.
Nimmo says the internet quality and speed was better than the dial-up copper he's used on the farm and about par with satellite. His property now uses a cellular connection for internet access, but the balloon network's performance didn't quite match that.
Apart from farming, Nimmo also works on children's books and farm tourism projects – which requires the use of the internet.
"[Before our cellular connection] I was just a few days from shutting down the internet at the house and doing work from town," he says, adding that for many rural New Zealanders Google's Loon network could be a way to make a significant step online.
Just outside of the Christchurch hotel I've stayed at for the past four days is the city's cathedral – Christchurch's defining symbol which now lays in ruin following the February 2011 earthquakes.
Directly following the earthquake on February 22, much of the city's telecommunications infrastructure was knocked offline – with Telecom, Vodafone and 2degrees all affected. DeVaul says Project Loon could be an invaluable tool for disaster recovery efforts around the globe.
"In New Orleans the damage to the network [after Hurricane Katrina] was massive ... In situations like that the first thing people want is to do is communicate with their loved ones and the authorities," he says.
New Zealand also has a major rural population, which can be difficult to service with traditional fixed-line infrastructure.
Logistically speaking, Christchurch is a lot more difficult for Google to get to with containers full of ballooning equipment than New Orleans. DeVaul says launching in the Southern Hemisphere, has the added benefit of having fewer countries and aviation authorities to deal with.
The 30 balloons launched this week are now floating somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, guided by the air currents towards the coast of South America. DeVaul jokes that somewhere around the middle of the ocean it might be good to warn the Chilean government about the armada of balloons that will soon arrive in its airspace.
Many times over the past four days DeVaul and his team have been asked questions about what how Google might turn Loon into a profitable business. In all that time he's been quick to remind us fanciful journalists that Project Loon is still very much a prototype in its infancy.
However, with a little bit more persistence, DeVaul opens up to the idea of Google as a global telco – at least in areas that are underserved or poorly served. Google is already shaking things up in the US, with its fibre trials in Austin and Kansas. By providing the backbone infrastructure for Africa, Asia and South America – Google could better ensure its products are what's used by these emerging economies.
"Google is an internet company, we want everyone in the world to be connected because it's good for business. If that means we have to go out there and create this ourselves, so be it," he says.
"What we do know is we wanted to start this now, because in ten years time there will be a completely different problem that needs to be solved ... We're probably working on this too."