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Project Loon – Balloon-Powered Internet for Everyone

What is Project Loon?

More than half of the world’s population is still without Internet access. Project Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to extend Internet connectivity to people in rural and remote areas worldwide

History

 In 2008, Google considered contracting with or acquiring Space Data Corp., a company that sends balloons carrying small base stations about 20 miles (32 km) up in the air for providing connectivity to truckers and oil companies in the southern United States, but didn’t do so

Unofficial development on the project began in 2011 under incubation in Google X with a series of trial runs in California‘s Central Valley. The project was officially announced as a Google project on 14 June 2013The project has run its experimental pilot in New Zealand, Calafornia’s Central Valley, northeast Brazil, South Africa, Sri Lanka (in February),  as well as in Indonesia.

Technology

 Project Loon is Google’s pursuit to deploy a high-altitude balloon network operating in the stratosphere, at altitudes between 18 km and 25 km. Google asserts that this particular layer of the stratosphere is advantageous because of its relatively low wind speeds (e.g., wind speeds between 5 and 20 mph / 10 to 30 kmph) and minimal turbulence. Moreover, Google claims that it can model, with reasonable accuracy, the seasonal, longitudinal, and latitudinal variations in wind speeds within the 18–25 km stratospheric layer. 

Initially, the balloons communicated using unlicensed 2.4 and 5.8 GHz ISM (industrial, scientific and medical) bands

The technology designed in the project could allow countries to avoid using expensive fiber cable that would have to be installed underground to allow users to connect to the Internet. Google feels this will greatly increase Internet usage in developing countries in regions such as Africa and Southeast Asia that can’t afford to lay underground fiber cable.  

Balloon

Project Loon balloons are designed and manufactured at scale to survive the conditions in the stratosphere, where winds can blow over 100 km/hr and the thin atmosphere offers little protection from UV radiation and dramatic temperature swings which can reach as low as -90°C. Made from sheets of polyethylene, each tennis court sized balloon is built to last more than 100 days in the stratosphere before returning to the ground in a controlled descent.

The balloons that project loon will use will be inflated with Helium and will use solar energy to operate.These balloons will not influence flight patterns of airplanes as they will be higher up than the airspace in which airplanes fly. Each balloon will be able to cover approximately 1200 square kilometers. With multiple balloons in one location, the signal strength could also be improved. This allows the internet connection to be optimized as denser populated areas like cities will need more balloons whereas rural area will naturally require fewer balloons.

Equipment

Project Loon has taken the most essentisal components of a cell tower and redesigned them to be light enough and durable enough to be carried by a balloon 20 km up in the stratosphere. All the equipment is highly energy-efficient and is powered entirely by renewable energy – with solar panels powering daytime operations and charging a battery for use during the night.  

1. Transceivers Transmit connectivity from ground stations, across balloons,and back down to users' LTE phones.

2. Solar panels Solar panels and insulated electronics packages, prepared for launch. It takes 4 hours for the solar panels to charge the battery during the day, and that power is 
sufficient to keep all the flight systems working 24 hours a day.
3. Parachute automatically deploys at the end of the balloon flight for a safe descent back to Earth.

4. Flight capsule contains the brains of the system for command and control of the Loon balloon.

Launching

Custom-built Autolaunchers are designed to launch Loon balloons safely and reliably at scale. Huge side panels provide protection from the wind as the balloon is filled and lifted into launch position, and then the crane is pointed downwind to smoothly release the balloon up into the stratosphere. Each crane is capable of filling and launching a new balloon into the Loon network every 30 minutes.

Navigating

Project Loon balloons travel approximately 20 km above the Earth’s surface in the stratosphere, well above airplanes, wildlife, and weather events. In the stratosphere winds are stratified, and each layer of wind varies in speed and direction. To get balloons to where they need to go, Project Loon uses predictive models of the winds and decision-making algorithms to move each balloon up or down into a layer of wind blowing in the right direction. By moving with the wind, the balloons can be arranged to provide coverage where it’s needed. 

How to Connecting?

Project Loon is partnering with telecommunications companies to extend connectivity into rural and remote areas so that people everywhere will be able to access the Internet directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices. Wireless internet signal is transmitted up to the nearest balloon from our telecommunications partner on the ground, relayed across the balloon network, and then sent back down to people in rural and remote areas. Each balloon has a coverage area of 5000 square kilometers.

A custom-designed Internet antenna attached to a user’s house allows them to receive Internet service from Project Loon.

Recovery

The Project Loon team tracks the location of every balloon using GPS, coordinating directly with the local air traffic control to bring each one safely to ground targeting sparsely populated areas. When a balloon is ready to be taken out of service, the lift gas keeping the balloon aloft is released and the parachute deploys automatically to bring the balloon to the ground in a controlled descent. Our recovery teams then collect the equipment for reuse and recycling.

In India

When Google approached various Indian ministries with the proposal last year, the project was shot down  owing to concerns over the spectrum bandwidth required by Google for transmission (700 to 900 megahertz (MHz)). Since this spectrum is already occupied by telecom service providers it could lead to cellular interference.

Further, the Civil Aviation ministry feared the interference of the balloons with flight paths; the Home ministry raised suspicions on surveillance and the Defence ministry had problems with the balloons floating over military establishments.

 BSNL has been coordinating with Google on the Loon project for space, spectrum coordination and equipment testing. In an interview with the Economic Times, Anupam Shrivastava, Chairman and Managing Director, BSNL said that they are evaluating two airwave bands – 700 Mhz and 2500 Mhz, with the latter being the preferred choice, since no approval is required from the telecom department.  They had also initially proposed Madhya Pradesh as the place for pilot.

Pros for the World

Project Loon is clearly an asset to Google. However, it is also a convenience to the rest of the world.One of the most obvious avails of the project is the Availability of Information. Assuming all the mechanisms of the project are functioning as planned, every single person who has access to some device that has wifi access would be able to search for almost any form of media online.

Farmers in remote corners of third world countries would be able to research and analyze multiple techniques that could increase their yield.

The direct benefit is naturally Education. With millions of uneducated children all across the world, this program might be able to successfully provide schooling through online classes on topics ranging anywhere from disaster management to literary analysis. Even without any additional content, these new users would at the very least have access to existing online resources including W3School,  Code Academy and many others

Health and Medicine is another area that will be affected by Loon. With globally available data on disease outbreaks and medical breakthrough, the entire population will be able to adjust to epidemics or adopt new drugs or medications.

Loon’s Use of Renewable Energy will greatly influence and inspire future projects as well. Creating an interplay between solar energy to keep the balloon functional while using wind energy to define its motor controls will help reduce the burden on coal, petroleum and other non-renewable energy sources.

Finally, Collaboration between people across the globe will become much easier with the constant connectivity to the each other through the internet, allowing newer more complicated projects to arise. For example, NGO’s in Africa could clearly demonstrate to their investors from Canada precisely how they are implementing their communal goals.

Concerns

The main problem with launching any hardware project is the certainty of eventual hardware failure. In most cases, the hardware is usually accessible and can be fixed. However, for airplanes, rockets, satellites, and now Loon balloons, hardware failure is a huge problem as they cannot be reached. If a Loon balloon fails, it can either remain up in the air floating, making it difficult to bring down or it might go down in unwanted areas. Both of these scenarios are a huge concern to the stability as well as the safety of people whose lives might be affected by unwanted balloon landings.

Another concern over this project is internet privacy since it gives Google more power over a wider range of consumer behavior. This information can become a security issue if it is shared with Government agencies like the NSA.

Finally, the last apprehension about this project is its monopolistic tendency. In the future, assuming no other company manages to initiate such a wide scale project, Google can utilize its monopoly over the internet by either charging money for Project Loon usage or even converge on favouritism by marketing Chrome books and Android phones but limiting the accessibility of other company’s laptops and devices on the Loon web service.

In conclusion, Project Loon is an ambitious project and the world will highly benefit from it. But do the pros outweigh the cons?

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