Author Jacqueline Detwiler Illustration James Provost
While the international popularity of K-pop and Russian dashboard cam videos might make it seem like everyone on Earth has access to the Internet, the world’s most useful series of tubes has yet to carry Twitter and Netflix to two-thirds of human beings. Many folks in places like rural Africa and South America have too little bandwidth to use remote learning programs, talk to far-off doctors, check the weather or simply use Google. In what is perhaps a self-serving endeavor, Google X, the same lab behind Google Glass and those wacky driverless cars, aims to change that. Project Loon, trials for which (literally) launched in June from New Zealand’s South Island, will offer Internet to the entire world via radio-carrying balloons that float in the stratosphere. Here’s how they’ll do it.
1. The 39-by-49-foot balloons are made of a special polyethylene plastic that can withstand internal pressure better than even weather balloons. A center section contains helium while an outer layer can take in or release pure air—using energy from an attached solar panel—so that the balloons are able to move up and down in the stratosphere.
2. Keeping the balloons in one place is energy inefficient, not to mention expensive. Instead, Google engineers will take advantage of the stratosphere’s natural layers of wind streams to float them around the Earth at about five to 20 miles per hour. Raising or lowering the balloons moves them into wind streams that travel in different directions.
3. Using radio frequency antennae, the balloons will connect with each other, a local Internet ground station and specialized connections on homes and offices. Each balloon can provide about 25 miles of coverage at speeds comparable to 3G. Google engineers will use advanced algorithms to keep them at an ideal spacing to ensure maximum coverage.