Google’s parent Alphabet is set to beam internet to the remotest areas of the planet via high-altitude balloons.
The firm has launched six balloons as part of its ‘Project Loon’ that have managed to transfer data across a 620-mile (1,000km) area as part of a landmark test.
They travelled 12 miles (20km) above the Earth’s surface and harnessed power from card table-sized solar panels that dangle below them.
A spokesperson from Loon, which is a subsidiary of Alphabet, said the stratospheric balloons rely on a single connection to the ground in Nevada.
The test is Project Loon’s latest as it heads towards its planned commercial launch of the service next year.
Google’s parent Alphabet is set to beam internet into the remotest areas of the planet as part of its ‘Project Loon’ starting next year. The project uses high-altitude balloons (pictured) capable of sending out a 4G signal
‘The thing about people is that they tend to live all over the place’, wrote Salvatore Candido, head of engineering at Loon, wrote in a blog post.
‘Even with our balloons’ expanded coverage area — which is 20 to 30 times greater than a traditional ground-based system — there are people who live outside the reach of one of our balloons.
‘If we can extend our reach by passing that connection across a network of balloons, like a cosmic soccer team advancing the ball through the sky, we can cover far more people’, he said.
According to Mr Candido, the balloons can overcome the main constraint of connecting people which is proximity.
The connection originated from the ground in Nevada, where packets of data were transmitted to a balloon overhead.
That data then travelled nearly 1,000km along a network of six additional balloons.
‘These connections were made using custom-built antennas mounted to the bottom of our communications payload.
‘Their accuracy is equivalent to throwing a ball 100 meters and landing it in a wastebasket’, he said.
The firm has launched six high-altitude balloons that will transfer data across a 1,000km (620-mile) area
A spokesperson from Loon, which is a subsidiary of Alphabet, says the stratospheric balloons rely on a single connection to the ground in Nevada
HOW DO THE BALLOONS WORK?
Project Loon is a network of balloons travelling on the edge of space, designed to connect people to the internet in remote parts of the world.
The balloons travel approximately 12 miles (20km) above the Earth’s surface in the stratosphere.
Winds in the stratosphere are stratified, and each layer of wind varies in speed and direction, so Project Loon uses software algorithms to determine where its balloons need to go.
It then moves each one into a layer of wind blowing in the right direction. By moving with the wind, the balloons can be arranged to form one large communications network.
The inflatable part of the balloon is called a balloon envelope made from sheets of polyethylene plastic that are 49ft (15 metres) wide and 40ft (12 metres) tall when inflated.
The balloons harness power from card table-sized solar panels that dangle below them, and they can gather enough charge in four hours to power them for a day.
Each balloon can provide connectivity to a ground area of around 25 miles (40km) in diameter using LTE, also referred to as 4G, technology.
Project Loon is partnering with telecommunications companies and mobile networks to share cellular spectrum.
Ground stations with internet capabilities around 60 miles (100km) apart bounce signals up to the balloons.
The signals can then hop forward, from one balloon to the next, along a backbone of up to five balloons.
At the end of last year, Alphabet said its stratospheric balloons had helped more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans to connect to the internet.
The firm is working with AT&T and T-Mobile to successfully deliver basic internet to remote areas of Puerto Rico where cellphone towers were knocked out by Hurricane Maria.
At the end of last year two of the search giant’s ‘Project Loon’ balloons were already over the country enabling texts, emails and basic web access.
Project Loon head Alastair Westgarth said in a blog post that the technology is still experimental, though it has been tested since 2016 in Peru following flooding there.
At the end of last year, Alphabet said its stratospheric balloons had helped more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans to connect to the internet
‘Project Loon’ balloons are already over the country enabling texts, emails and basic web access to AT&T customers with handsets that use its 4G LTE network. Pictured, a Loon balloon on its way to Puerto Rico from Nevada
A Loon balloon getting ready to take flight to Puerto Rico from Google’s launch site in Nevada
‘We’ve never deployed Project Loon connectivity from scratch at such a rapid pace, and we’re grateful for the support of AT&T and the many other partners and organizations that have made this possible,’ Mr Westgarth wrote.
‘This is the first time we have used our new machine learning powered algorithms to keep balloons clustered over Puerto Rico, so we’re still learning how best to do this.’
The balloons were launched from Alpahbet’s launch site in Nevada to Puerto Rico.
‘As we get more familiar with the constantly shifting winds in this region, we hope to keep the balloons over areas where connectivity is needed for as long as possible.
‘Thanks to the Pan-American and Puerto Rican governments’ aviation authorities and air traffic controllers, who enabled us to send small teams of balloons from our launch site in Nevada to Puerto Rico.
‘Thanks also to SES Networks and Liberty Cablevision who helped quickly set up essential ground infrastructure so that the balloons could get internet connectivity.’
Loon balloons have flown more than 26 million kms around the world, Alphabet said.
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