The highly secretive Google X research lab has unveiled an ambitious plan to provide internet access to the 4.7 billion people who currently can’t access the web via a ring of huge balloons circling the globe.
The top-secret plan, code-named Project Loon, was revealed on Saturday as Google scientists launched a trial with up to 30 helium-filled balloons flying 20km above Christchurch, New Zealand, carrying antennae linked to ground base stations. Wi-fi signals were then successfully beamed from another part of the country to the balloons, and then to the homes of trial participants.
While still in the early stages, Google hopes to eventually have thousands of balloons circling the Earth, ensuring there is no part of the globe that cannot access the internet.
It was the culmination of 18 months’ work on what Google calls Project Loon, in recognition of how wacky the idea may sound. Developed in the secretive X lab that came up with a driverless car and web-surfing eyeglasses, the flimsy helium-filled inflatables beam the internet down to Earth as they sail past on the wind.
If successful, the technology might allow countries to leapfrog the expense of laying fibre cable, dramatically increasing internet usage in places such as Africa and Southeast Asia.
“It’s a huge moonshot. A really big goal to go after,” said project leader Mike Cassidy. “The power of the internet is probably one of the most transformative technologies of our time.”
The first person to get Google Balloon Internet access this week was Charles Nimmo, a farmer and entrepreneur in the small town of Leeston. He found the experience a little bemusing after he was one of 50 locals who signed up to be a tester for a project that was so secret no-one would explain to them what was happening. Technicians came to the volunteers’ homes and attached to the outside walls bright red receivers the size of basketballs and resembling giant Google map pins. Mr Nimmo got the internet for about 15 minutes before the balloon transmitting it sailed on past.
While the concept is new, people have used balloons for communication, transportation and entertainment for centuries. In recent years, the military and aeronautical researchers have used tethered balloons to beam internet signals back to bases on Earth.
Google’s balloons fly free and out of sight, scavenging power from card table-sized solar panels that dangle below and gather enough charge in four hours to power them for a day as the balloons sail around the globe on the prevailing winds. Far below, ground stations with internet capabilities about 60 miles (100km) apart bounce signals up to the balloons. The signals would hop forward, from one balloon to the next, along a backbone of up to five balloons.
Each balloon would provide internet service for an area twice the size of New York City, about 780 square miles (1,250 sq km).