Google’s 'moonshot factory', also known as X, is a place where seemingly crazy solutions for worldwide problems can be tested in reality.
One of these radical solutions is Project Loon. The idea of this project is to provide basic internet connectivity to parts of the world that aren’t yet online by providing connections via balloons that float on wind currents in the stratosphere.
What is Project Loon?
Project Loon is an initiative where balloons the size of tennis courts are launched 65,000 feet up in the sky and provide internet connections of up to 10Mbps to people on the ground.
It has now done over 25 million kilometres of test flights, with one balloon surviving a record-breaking 190 days.
How does Project Loon work?
Internet providers on the ground connect with transmitters on the floating balloons. Depending on where coverage is needed, the signal can be passed between balloons using lasers.
The balloons made up of sheets of polyethylene are built to last 100 days, and can be moved along the wind currents.
How do the balloons survive?
The stratosphere is not a hospitable environment. Winds can blow at over 100km/h and temperatures can drop to -90ºC.
To simulate these harsh conditions the team went to McKinley Climatic Lab in Florida where the weather was replicated to test out the balloons’ durability.
How are the balloons launched?
After a 2013 proof-of-concept test in New Zealand, the Project Loon team decided to scale the project up.
Issues involved launching consistently in changing weather conditions and reducing the number of people required to set the balloon off.
The aim is to create autolaunchers which can launch one every 30 minutes.
In December 2017, one of the balloons caused some alarm when it came back down to earth in Kenya, according to Africa Times.
Why don't the balloons interfere with planes?
The translucent, jellyfish-shaped balloons fly way above where commercial aircraft and birds live. At 65,000 feet the balloons are in the stratosphere, whereas planes fly at a maximum altitude of 39,000 feet.
When a balloon needs to come down, the Project Loon team communicate with local airtraffic control who can find locate the balloon using location sensors so that a pick-up team can recall it.
Where has Project Loon helped out?
In March this year it helped connect people in Peruvian flood zones around Lia, Chimbote and Piura. More than 800 provinces in Peru were declared to be a state of emergency, and Project Loon was able to provide basic internet connectivity to tens of thousands of people.