Google’s New Internet Balloons Set to Circle the Planet

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Google has announced that it is on course to have sufficient of its internet beaming balloons in the stratosphere by next year to form a ring around the planet.  The aim of the project would be to allow the trial of a continuous data service available to people that live below the path of the balloons.

The declaration comes with the announcement that three of the mobile networks in Indonesia are set to begin testing the transmissions next year as part of the Project Loon scheme.  Sri Lanka has already signed a separate agreement registering its wish to be another to take part in the scheme that uses giant helium balloons.

Balloon plan

Google first revealed the project and its superpressure balloons in June 2013 when some thirty inflatable plastic ‘envelopes’ were launched from New Zealand.  Under each balloon were two radio transceivers to send and receive data streams along with a third backup.  They also carried a flight computer and GOS location tracker as well as altitude control to move it up and down to find the right winds and solar panels for power.

The concept produced 3G-type data speeds but the new version of the equipment can supply devices with around 10 megabits a second via an antennae on the ground with current 4G speeds being around 15 megabits a second.

Nor is speed the only advance the system has seen.  According to Mike Cassidy, vice-president of Project Loon, the early balloons would only last a week to ten days but the newer versions can last in the region of 180 days in the air.  It also used to take a group of 14 people to launch a balloon and at least an hour or two’s work.  Now an automated crane can launch a balloon every 15 minutes with just two or three people on hand.

Circle

If the plan continues at its current rate, one of the goals will be achieve next year.  This involves some 300 balloons being launched to form a ring around the Earth.  It also sees when one moves out of place, another moves into position to compensate.

By next year the first ring will be in place and this will see a continuous coverage offered to certain areas of the world.  This will then herald the first beta commercial customers.  Each balloon provides around 40km of connectivity around its position so the initial circle will likely be around a small part of the southern hemisphere.

Google says that the project is cheaper than installing fibre optic cables or building mobile phone masts across areas such as the islands of Indonesia with its jungles and mountainous areas.  It is aiming to address the fact that in the country, there are over 100 million of the 255 million population that cannot access the internet.

Superpressure

Superpressure balloons are made from sealed plastic and contain lighter than air gases in a highly pressurised state.  This makes them relatively stable even amid changes in temperature.  They can stay in the air and maintain a specific altitude better than normal balloons, which would stretch and contract.  It also avoids the problems of balloons dropping when the air temperature cools at night.

The first balloons were developed in the 1950s by the US Air Force and later resulted in the Ghost programme that saw balloons released over remote areas of the planet to gather wind and temperature data.


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