Challenging established norms, Loon is providing internet services to rural areas by deploying high altitude balloons which serve as high performance LTE towers. The balloons sail the stratosphere guided by AI.
Many think of the Internet as a global community but the reality is approximately two-thirds of the world’s population does not have any access to the Internet. Google looked to fixed this problem and created a project name loon to discover and implement a solution.
Although it began as “Google Project Loon”, today it is known as Loon LLC which is an Alphabet Inc. subsidiary working to provide Internet access to rural and remote areas. The company uses high-altitude balloons placed in the stratosphere at an altitude of about 11 miles to create an aerial wireless network supporting up to 4G-LTE speeds. This is well above airplanes, wildlife, and weather events. In the stratosphere winds are “stratified”; that is to say the wind is layered and each layer varies in speed and direction. Spoiler, this is the secret to their success.
All of this high tech weather science is done on the ground using predictive computer models and decision-making algorithms to move each balloon up or down into a layer of wind blowing in the right direction.
The balloons carry a small package of communications devices which include Transceivers. In radio electronics, a transceiver is basically a transmitter and a receiver in a single package. They are used to transmit connectivity from ground stations, across balloons, and back down to users’ LTE phones.
Initially it was planned that Google would purchase proprietary space on the radio spectrum so Loon balloons could operate independently of existing wireless networks. But Google has done away with that plan and instead balloons will be leased to cellular companies like AT&T, T-Mobile, Safaricom, Airtel and Telkom Kenya.
Loon has taken the most essential components of a cell tower and redesigned them to be light and durable enough to be carried by a balloon 11 miles up. Loon balloons are designed and manufactured to endure the harsh conditions of the stratosphere where winds can blow over 62 miles/hr and temperatures can drop as low as -130° F.
The balloon is made from sheets of polyethylene and each 78ft balloon is built to last for well over 100 days before landing back on Earth in a controlled descent.
All the flight equipment is highly durable and energy efficient. It is powered by solar power during the day and an rechargeable onboard battery at night. Other payload items include two LTE antennas, a flight capsule, and a parachute to assist in its return to earth.
Launching a Loon
Balloons and their payloads are launched using an auto launcher which handles all the tasks like a mobile assembly line. The auto launcher is able to send a balloon and payload on its way every 30 minutes.
The Loon Network
A group of Loon balloons creates a network that provides connectivity to people in a defined area in the same way a group of cell towers on the ground form a terrestrial network. The difference is the “towers” are constantly moving with the winds. Loon software is AI based and is constantly learning to improve the choreography of the balloons, which improves the quality of the network. The entire network can function autonomously, efficiently routing connectivity across balloons and ground stations while taking into account balloon motion, obstructions, and weather events.
Bringing a Loon Home
When a balloon is ready to be taken out of service, the lift gas keeping it aloft is released and the parachute deployed to control the landing. Descents are coordinated with local air traffic control to land the balloon safely in a sparsely populated area. Ground recovery teams then collect the equipment for reuse and recycling.
Once recovered, balloons are laid out on a giant scanner in the Loon lab to be inspected for microscopic holes and tears. This process paints a picture of how our balloons react to conditions in the stratosphere. Conducting this analysis provides insights to inform our design choices, enabling the team to develop balloons capable of increasingly longer flight durations.
Project Loon balloons have been deployed in some limited settings since the idea began beta testing back in 2011. In late 2017, Loon deployed balloons over Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria – providing basic Internet service to about 250,000 people. Working together with the Peruvian Government, Loon delivered basic connectivity to tens of thousands of people in flood affected areas across the country..
The government of Kenya announced it will be using Project Loon balloons to connect rural areas to the Internet.
Alphabet also has a keen interest in low orbit satellites through its investment in SpaceX. In 2015, Elon Musk from SpaceX began probing the FCC about testing a “global broadband” system, and in September of 2017 filed applications for a satellite based broadband network called Starlink, with the objective of eventually building a low-cost, satellite based broadband network capable of delivering internet access to the entire globe.
And there is the question, will established cellular vendors buy into this solution when they have made substantial investments in cell towers.?