Project Loon by Google: Internet Balloons Ensure Broadband Coverage

They fly way up high at an altitude of 20 kilometers and have already travelled more than 30 million kilometers around the globe. We are talking about Internet balloons from Loon, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet. Loon is working together with the telecommunications provider Telkom Kenya and wants to use the balloons commercially for the first time in Africa in 2019. The goal is to provide Internet access to people living in the mountainous and difficult-to-access regions in Kenya where it would take too much effort to establish a terrestrial network. The Loon service is designed to close the gap in supply by providing the state-of-the-art 4G/LTE mobile communication standard in these regions.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, one in six people around the world lives out of reach of mobile broadband services and only one in two people has access to the Internet. According to a recent report by the United Nations Broadband Commission (UN), being connected to the digital world, for example, being able to use broadband services and high-speed Internet, plays an important role in improving people’s living conditions and promoting economic growth, especially in less developed countries. The Loon balloons act as “flying cell phone towers” and are an innovative concept that’s now being put to use in real life. They are filled with gas, powered by solar energy, and serve as floating broadcast stations, offering a whole host of ways they can be used: Not only can they extend Internet connectivity to rural areas, but they can also improve grid stability in the event of a disaster.

The technology was developed in the Alphabet Innovation Lab X, and initial test flights took place in 2013 in Nevada and New Zealand. The balloons proved their worth in practical application at the beginning of 2017 during a disastrous flood in Peru: Loon worked with the government and telecommunications provider Telefonica to improve grid stability in areas hit by the flood.

Loon Launcher: A new balloon can be launched from earth into the stratosphere every 30 minutes. The ramp’s high side walls protect the balloon against wind when it is being filled and brought into the launch position.

Loon: How Internet Balloons Work and Why They Are Beneficial

The 12 x 15 meter Loon balloons are sent up into the stratosphere so that they aren’t affected by the weather and can stay out of the way of air traffic. 20 kilometers above the ground, an algorithm developed by Google ensures that the balloon can act autonomously, meaning it can go up and down on its own as well as adjust its position. The balloons are able to communicate with each other and thereby form a complete communication network.

While a cell tower’s broadcasting area is limited by the height of its antennae, the balloons floating above the clouds can provide Internet connectivity at connection speeds of up to 10 Mbit/s over a much larger area. 40 kilometers is the current range in which a balloon can provide Internet via LTE. According to the company, the balloon can stay in the air for more than 100 days.

Each balloon’s position is tracked using GPS and coordinated by the Loon team in consultation with local air traffic control. If a balloon is taken out of service, the gas that keeps it up in the air is then released and a parachute is automatically deployed. The balloon is brought down in a controlled manner in sparsely populated areas and then recycled or reused.

Text by Benjamin Klare
Photos: iLite (Flickr/CC BY 2.0), X, Loon