Internet from the stratosphere: Google Loon

Internet technology that targets underserved communities.

Internet connection penetration has increased significantly since the dot-com era in the early 2000s. A bunch of billion-dollar corporations have been founded due to the birth of the internet. Some of these companies include Microsoft, Amazon.com, Google, Facebook, PayPal, among others. Also, the fast penetration of the internet has fastened communication and made the world a smaller community where people can send and receive messages almost instantly.

However, even though a lot of people have migrated to the digital world, there are some who haven’t yet. This is due to a lot of factors, among them the unequal distribution of resources and economic hardships in certain countries. As of 2015, 4 billion people still don’t have access to the internet.

There are companies and organizations that have been trying to bridge the digital gap, assisting the unconnected to be connected. One of the many companies involved is Google.

Through its highly creative outfit known for groundbreaking innovations such as Google Glass and self-driving cars, Google X has been working on a technology that can help provide internet connectivity to areas that are not well connected yet. The project name is Project Loon (or just Google Loon).

Google Loon uses balloons that are floating in the stratosphere part of the atmosphere to create wireless networks that provide internet access to masses on earth.

Image courtesy of Loon

Typical balloons (such as the ones used in birthday parties) can’t withstand extreme conditions such as high altitudes, high-pressure differences, strong winds, and high temperatures. They’d burst. Furthermore, the birthday balloons can’t carry heavy equipment such as the ones required in operating Wi-Fis.

Google Loon balloons are idiosyncratically designed to work under extreme conditions such as the ones mentioned above. The balloons are made of polythene plastics.

Each inflated Google Loon balloon measures 15 meters wide by 12 meters high. The surface area of each balloon is 500 square meters. Each balloon system has two chambers. The inner chamber is filled with air and the outer one with helium gas. At the bottom of each balloon, there are valves and a fan that can be used to pump air in and out of the balloons. Pumping air out (the inner chamber) causes the balloon to go up while pumping air in results in the opposite result.

A Google Loon balloon before launch. Image courtesy of Loon

The electronic system of a Google Loon balloon consists of a metallic box hanging at the bottom of the balloon. Solar panels that are used to power the Google Loon balloons in the stratosphere are also found at the bottom of the balloons. Each balloon is equipped with 2 arrays of monocrystalline solar cells. The cells can generate electricity of about 100 watts per day. The energy generated is stored in rechargeable lithium ions batteries to help power the balloons even at night when there is no sunlight.

Also included as electronics payload include computing equipment, GPS units to help track the location of the balloons, sensors to help monitor atmospheric conditions, and radio equipment to assist in communication with other balloons in the atmosphere to avoid collisions.

One balloon “can provide internet connectivity to an area of about 40 kilometres in diameter on the ground, and hundreds of people potentially connected at the same time.”

The project has partnered with Telkom Kenya, a telecommunications company in Kenya to launch 35 balloons. The 35 balloons will cover a region of nearly 50,000 square kilometres. Some of the areas that will be covered include Eldoret, Baringo, Nakuru, Kakamega, Kisumu, Kisii, Bomet, and Kericho. The balloons were launched from Puerto Rico and Nevada and are on their way to Kenya.

The route that the balloons will travel to reach Kenya. Image courtesy of Loon

Google Loon has opened a new era in internet access. This technology will help provide internet access to underserved communities so that those who live in such areas can get equal opportunities that are provided by internet access. Such opportunities include enhanced ways of getting firsthand information, enhanced ways of learning, enhanced communication channels, among other things.

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