Google's Project Loon will celebrate its first birthday this month. The project's team has spent one year continuously revising prototypes through several experiments, and now it hopes to launch a permanent set of internet-carrying balloons by 2015.
Google revealed in June 2014 that it cooked up a unique solution for people living in rural areas who struggle to get access to the internet. It came up with Project Loon: a setup that uses actual air balloons to beam internet down to remote places. Google claimed that for two out of three people in the world, access to a fast, reliable internet connection doesn't exist. Project Loon could change all that however.
The team behind Project Loon has tackled many obstacles during the last year, but one of the more complex issues has been flight duration. The first New Zealand tests saw balloons last only a few days. So the team painstakingly collected every crashed balloon and found that pinhole leaks along the polymer skin seam, among other things, were the culprit. The Loon team then strengthened the seam and drastically improved flight times.
Google can now keep balloons flying for 75 days. One balloon, called Ibis 152, has been in air for over 100 days, while another balloon, called Ibis 162, circled the globe three times before it finally descended. The Loon team has also bolstered balloon internet speeds. A year ago, download speeds averaged one or two megabits per second. But now balloons are utilising LTE and providing 22 MB/sec to ground antennas and 5 MB/sec to handsets.
Eric "Astro" Teller is the chief of moonshots at Google X. Teller likely inherited his genius from Edward Teller, his grandfather, who created the hydrogen bomb. Teller revealed in an interview with Wired today that Project Loon's advancements over the last year mean that balloons could one day also serve internet to non-rural areas. He said people still lose connection in places like Silicon Valley, but Project Loon balloons could fill in those dead spots.
That's not an impossible idea either. After all, Google revealed earlier this year it might lease balloons to economically-conscious wireless carriers. The balloons would float over countries - using telcos spectrum and providing internet to places with and without coverage - for the carriers, just like floating cell towers. Google would fulfill its goal of connecting the world, and wireless carriers wouldn't need to invest money into tapping unused spectrum in rural areas.
That said, Project Loon has a little ways to go before all that. Goals for 2015, for instance, include routine flights of 100 days for all balloons, 100 balloons in the air simultaneously, and a group of 300 to 400 balloons floating around the globe to offer continuous service to a specific area. But that's not all: by Loon’s two-year birthday, Teller wants Project Loon to extend beyond the experimental phase.
"I would hope, instead of running experiments, we’ll have a more or less permanent set of balloons," he said. "In one or several countries, you will turn on your phone and talk to the balloons. Yes, Loon will be offering service.”