Google’s Project Loon that purposes to get everyone connected to the internet has started its pilot tests in Kenya.
Project Loon was conceptualized more than four years ago and has several motivations behind it. For instance, it is assumed that everyone is connected to the internet today and while that may not sound far-fetched, it is not true because for one person who can get access to the web, there are two people who can’t. This statistical fact is perceived differently in different parts of the world where internet penetration is not the same. In fact, in some regions, no one is online at all. It is here that Project Loon comes in where it intends to functionally bring unconnected people online to access information. Such information could be in the form of educational material for school-goers, health and medical support in areas with no doctors or the use of weather data for farmers to optimize their activities. At the same time, Project Loon wants to boost businesses owing to the fact that those that use connectivity solutions grow twice as fast to create more opportunities.
These are some of the issues Project Loon wants to address with low-cost internet access. Its approach is new because it utilizes balloons since they are a faster, easier and affordable method of giving people the internet. It is like Wi-Fi for the world.
For the project to work, the team had to figure out how to navigate balloons in the atmosphere, where they decided to have them move up and down to counter multi-directional winds in different altitudes. They did this with a pump-like device that lets air in and out of the balloon, hence having control over navigation.
To provide stable and wide coverage wherever the balloon flies, the team ensures that a balloon that goes out of range is replaced by another one. Ideally, the team uses wind data to determine what kind of winds are available in different levels in the stratosphere and then changes levels to catch whichever wind is most appropriate. Moreover, this can be enhanced by controlling additional parameters such those that decide how fast a balloon can rise and drop and how low they can travel to catch different currents in the wind.
So, for how long should be balloons fly? Project Loon says that 100 days or three laps around the globe are good enough for optimum activity, which they have achieved by making sure that balloons are leak-proof. It is a very thing difficult to do because Loon balloons can stretch up to 500 square meters and that increases chances of leaks, which can shorten their life. Depending environmental conditions, be it excess warmth or cold that can be catastrophic to the balloon, altitude control maneuvers that include pumping air in and out as well as varying air pressure are used. Project Loon is also testing materials that can be used to make the balloon more long-lasting.
The most important aspect of Project Loon is delivering connectivity especially in rural areas where putting up infrastructure for a robust connection is deemed uneconomical because building cell towers in vast areas is expensive. To overcome terrestrial problems, Loon takes infrastructure to the air for scalable deployment. Balloons are then equipped with essential components including wireless connectivity devices, GPS and robust high throughput link to the existing internet. The signal is then beamed to the balloons from ground stations where terrestrial internet network ends and Loon starts. As previously stated, the balloon is not stationary, which is why antennas have to track it for a high throughput reliable link. Once the data from the ground station is received at the balloon, it is vital that multiple balloons are interconnected to broadcast the signal, which could be hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from the station.
This makes balloon to balloon link a critical element of the network and because the link cannot be done using cables (they are always moving, dah!), signals are beamed using lasers. It is noteworthy that the entire process has to be seamless and lined up well enough to provide a robust connection.
In case you are asking, these balloons have established up to 1 gigabit per second of data speeds up in the stratosphere covering hundreds of kilometers. The signal can then get to people using 4G LTE (and lower generations) mobile handhelds when a Loon balloon passes by.
Testing is taking place in Nakuru, Nanyuki, Nyeri and Marsabit with 10 balloons for the pilot.