Google is moving ahead with Project Loon, a plan to use high-altitude balloons to provide Internet access to remote areas.
But there are some challenges ahead before the project goes mainstream.
The history of Google’s moonshot project to provide global Internet access using high-altitude balloons goes back nearly 1800 years, according to Google[x] chief technical architect Rich Devaul. That’s when, according to legend, a Chinese general sent a floating lantern into the sky to call for more troops.
Devaul first began to consider how to blanket the world with balloon-based wireless Internet closer to a decade ago, when he was at the MIT Media Lab. “I got as far as a napkin sketch,” Devaul says. “No balloons were inflated at that time.”
The fundamental insight that would fuel the now (literally) full-blown project at Google[x] was of the “fast, cheap and out of control” variety. “Many people had proposed using either tethered balloons or stratospheric airships,” Devaul says. “I decided that maybe that’s not the right problem to solve.” Instead, he wondered, what if the problem was figuring out how to keep the globe covered with a network of constantly moving untethered balloons?
The fruit of that idea is “Project Loon,” which launched its first public trial last month in New Zealand, using 30 balloons to try to bring wireless signals to 50 testers including sheep-farming entrepreneur Charles Nimmo.
“Many of our flights did really exactly what we thought they would do,” says Devaul. But some, notably, did not, and their unexpected travels reveal the challenges ahead
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