Google's Project Loon Aims to Float Internet Connectivity Across the Globe

By Wesley Fenlon

Providing Internet to six billion people is an incredible goal, but Google's taking a stab at the idea. With balloons.

Google has a wild, wild plan to bring high speed Internet to parts of the world where it's expensive or simply impossible to access. And it doesn't involve laying fiber lines. It involves balloons.

Once upon a time, hot air balloons were the future of transportation. In science fiction, like Jules Verne's 1863 novel Five Weeks in a Balloon, they were an almost magical form of transportation that made global travel a possibility. Even now, in steampunk, airships are held aloft by balloons as they cruise the skies. Our actual technological implementations of balloons are a bit more reserved--today we use airplanes to fly across the globe rather than zeppelins or hot air balloons--but high altitude balloons are still used in awesome science projects to carry sensors high into the Earth's stratosphere.

Google's cheekily-named Project Loon works much the same way. The company wants to use a network of balloons flying at twice the height of commercial jet airplanes to provide 3G-caliber Internet (or better) to the ground below. Imagine Wi-Fi coming from approximately 65,000 feet in the air, and you'll get the idea. But how could Google keep the balloons in place so far off the ground? They can't. Or, at least, they don't intend to.

"All we had to do was figure out how to control their path through the sky," writes Google project lead Mike Cassidy. "We’ve now found a way to do that, using just wind and solar power: we can move the balloons up or down to catch the winds we want them to travel in. That solution then led us to a new problem: how to manage a fleet of balloons sailing around the world so that each balloon is in the area you want it right when you need it. We’re solving this with some complex algorithms and lots of computing power."

Google put up a video explaining the technology behind Project Loon, and they're already well into the testing phase--a pilot program in New Zealand has a (potentially) lucky 50 people trying to connect to the balloons and using them for Internet access.

Google's simple "Internet for all" goal is audacious. It's hard to imagine putting forth the manpower to keep a global fleet of balloons in the sky, since they eventually deflate and fall back to Earth. Google can control that descent as well, refill the balloons, and send them skyward again, but doing that on a global scale would be an enormous task.

Still, their introductory video for Project Loon is sweet in that Pixar sort of way. Inspiring, even: