Balloons can make birthday parties more fun or act as weather detectors, weather balloons, as we all know. But the prodigies of Google have found that these have an extended potential to provide the most important technological necessity of today, Internet. Not all have the access to the internet in the world. Around five billion people, in the present scenario, lack the essential facility that most of us enjoy every day. When “Everyone” is called a social animal, not “Everyone” is provided with the tool to be so. So has Google come up with this extremely audacious invention that is looking forward for the betterment of the mankind. The first pilot test was carried on launching 30 balloons with the help of the Civil Aviation Authority on 16 June 2013 in South Island, New Zealand. Though the project was initiated in 2011, it was officially announced only on June 14 2013. “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhoea, no, there’s no website that relieves that,” criticised Bill Gates about the Project. “Certainly I’m a huge believer in the digital revolution. And connecting up primary-healthcare centres, connecting up schools, those are good things. But no, those are not, for the really low-income countries, unless you directly say we’re going to do something about malaria”, he mentioned. Says, Google does not focus on critical things that are essential.
How Project Loon did make its way to this level? A prototype of the entire equipment was made and launched, which comprised of the local things that is needed for broadcasting internet. Though the idea was viable, the demonstration was a failure. After two months of working on it, better modules were developed which led to what Project Loon is now.
So, what is the technology under Project Loon? The paramount idea is to launch high altitude polythene balloons which are 15m across and 12m tall, high above the clouds, above the range of air planes, between 20-32 kms above the surface of Earth, in the stratosphere. The balloon consists of a custom air pump system which controls the elevation and pumps air in and out of the balloon, circuit boards, radio antenna and Ubiquiti Networks Rocket M2. The balloon rotates parallel with Earth’s latitude, receiving signal from the nearest Internet service provider and transmitting it to the antennae that is attached to the houses. Wireless internet connection up to 3G-like speed can be provided to all the places around the world, using this mechanism.
The antenna device has a radio in the bottom and an antenna in the upper surface consisting of two cables, a reflector which is circular in shape and a radiating element. The antenna is designed in such a way that it is sensitive enough to catch and reflect as well as refract the signals from the balloons which are not in uniform distance from them. To give emotions to the antennae, it was made to look like a hand holding a balloon in an actual motive to make it interesting and lively. The team is currently working for even more sophisticated antennae, says Cyrus Behroozi, Network Engineer Lead, Project Loon. The polythene balloons are tested to last for 100 long days or carry on three lapses around Earth. To keep it long living it has to be leak proof, for a lot of measures have been taken to achieve it. Altitude control manoeuvres that monitor the air pressure are also fitted in. During the day, the balloon, because of the sun, becomes hot and expands and later becomes colder and shrinks. The mechanism is like that of a rubber band which breaks off in extreme heat and in cold. This major barrier was overcome through a lot of tests. Normally, to gravitate the balloon valve on the top of the balloon can be opened to let the Helium out as much it is needed to land properly on the ground. In case of any equipment failure such as tearing, bursts etc, a pilot chute connected with a paracord to a parachute will get into action. The pilot chute after catching air pulls out the parachute which eventually descends the balloon down to the surface. There was another hurdle with the batteries in the balloon that was made of Lithium, that don’t work in extreme cold conditions. While the temperature in the stratosphere is around -70°C it becomes tougher for the battery to have a long life for which Styrofoam beverage coolers are used to protect them. They are also formulated with electrolytes and cathode materials.
The speed of wind in the stratosphere is about 5-20mph, steady and composed. A software algorithm is used to direct the balloons according to the wind direction into each layer to join with other balloons to produce a strong network. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides the data about the speed and direction of the wind in the stratosphere. Apart from this, the balloons need to be spaced well from each other to cover, receive and transmit signals from and to all the places on the Earth. As they circulate in uniform distance from each other, the network is facilitated to all the parts at the same time, without sparing one. Thus, Internet for all!
This mechanism seems innovative but it needed a lot of hard work and brainstorming, indeed. Project Loon is the emerging wonder of the present day technology. It has been nominated for TechCrunch’sCrunchies Award fro Best Technology Achievement of 2013. Google’s balloons are geared up to unite the World. Engineering is not just about machines and algorithms. It is also about innovations and stupefaction. So proves Project Loon!