How Google Loon Works.

It is believed that a lot of people are hooked to the Internet ,but this is only partially true. Around 4 billion people do not have access to the internet as of late 2015. Several people reside in place where there is no internet infrastructure,or where coverage is unavailable or exorbitantly high.

Google, known for its numerous high-tech pursuits,has several projects in the development stage to bring high-speed Internet access to the a lot of people. Their Fiber project aims to provide Gigabit internet service,which faster than the existing connection speeds we are used to. Using fiber optics,it has programs going on in several cities in the US. The firm has a different project focused on taking high-speed Internet access to places that do not have it. The project uses a technology we call it primitive — balloons!

The project is known as Project Loon,because it involves using balloons and also because it sounds looney. Google intends to create wireless networks using equipment-loaded balloons floating in the stratosphere, high up in the,above the clouds. The balloons interconnects with each other,networking equipment on ground and mobile devices to get people on the ground connected to the internet.

Project Loon originated from Google X labs,acclaimed outfit embarking on several amazing projects such as self-driving cars, Google Glass and contact lenses with computing ability.As strange as Project Loon sounds, there have been reports of successful tests of the program.

Google Loon Balloons

Project Loon's balloons are unlike the common party balloons, which will work well in the extreme weather conditions at high altitudes. Party balloons are too fragile to be able to carry any equipment. The Google Loon team has developed something more like a weather balloon,made to withstand tough atmospheric conditions like difference in pressure , high speed winds, UV exposure and extreme(low and high) temperatures-which are well below freezing point at higher altitudes. This means they are able stay longer than previously developed balloons. The numerous balloon versions have been named after birds, including the Falcon, Ibis, Grackle and recently NightHawk.

The balloons are made of polyethylene plastic having the thickness of a sandwich bag. Every inflated balloon (the part known as the envelope of the balloon) is about 50 feet wide by 40 feet high (15 meters wide by 12 meters high), with about 5,381 feet (500 square meters) surface area. Their size required handling  them in giant hangars like at the Moffett Federal Airfield in California.

The balloons are made with double chambers ( a kind of balloon within a balloon), the inner one is filled with air and the outer one with helium. Valves and a fan fitted to the base of the balloon,is used to pump air in or out. Adding air to the inner balloon increases the mass and makes the balloon to go down, and releasing air makes it to go up.

Earlier balloons burst or could not stay in the air longer. The team went as far as analyzing problems and make improvements. Google employed experts in ballooning, aerospace, textiles and numerous other disciplines to find out why the balloons failed and employed ex-military personnel to retrieve fallen balloons (which at times dropped in places with difficult terrain).

Some of the tests were conducted in extreme conditions such as those the balloons might encounter in the atmosphere. At some point, temperatures fell to below-freezing temperatures in South Dakota, one of the manufacturing locations for the balloons. Recently tests conducted at the McKinley Climatic Laboratory at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida,this allowed them to subject the balloons to extreme weather conditions, such as high winds and below freezing temperatures, in a controlled lab environment.

A lot of the failures were discovered to have originated from tiny leaks that were difficult to detect. Even the smallest pin-sized hole would enormously reduce a balloon's time of flight in the air. As a result of this findings, the seams were made stronger, and highly careful balloon handling procedures were implemented,with team members only walking on them in very soft fuzzy socks.

Apart from raising the bar for its own project, Google's efforts have brought forward new developments in ballooning. As a result of improvement in design, their balloons can stay in air for 100 days. One spent a record of 187 days and circled the planet nine times. These are flight times that were unheard of earlier, and considered by some experts to be impossible before.

The Loon team has also overhauled the deployment procedures a lot from the commencement of the project. A crew was used to lay the balloons out on tarps,unwrap and partially inflate them before launch which could only be launched in winds with speed of 6 miles (9.7 kilometers) per hour or lower. But Google has come with an Autolauncher (known as the Bird House internally), a 50-foot (15.2-meter) tall portable hangar with an automated crane to stretch and fill the balloons. They can now be launched in 15 mile (24 kilometer) per hour winds, and the work that normally require 14 people and 45 minutes now need 4 people and 15 minutes. This development made keeping enough balloons in the air to form a network highly possible.

Google Loon Electronic Equipment

Google is not just sending up balloons. Each balloon is fitted with a metallic box of electronic equipment hanging from the bottom from cord with attached solar panels for power.

Each solar panel is a collection of monocrystalline solar cells arranged in a laminated plastic and placed in an aluminum frame with dimension 5 feet by 5 feet (1.5 meters by 1.5 meters) in width. Two of such panels are mounted directed outward from each other at sharp angles to trap any amount of sunlight they can as the balloons spins round. They produce about 100 watts of power in a few hours of full daylight, which is stored in batteries so the equipment on board will continue to work in during  darkness.

The electronic cargo includes computing equipment for control, rechargeable lithium ion batteries to store up the sun-generated power, GPS units to trace balloon locations, loads of sensors for Google to monitor atmospheric conditions and radio equipment for wireless communication with other balloons and with networks on ground. The radio equipment comprises a wide-coverage eNodeB LTE base station, a high-speed access directional link and a backup radio.

According to Google, the connectivity provided by each balloon can cover an area of nearly 25 miles (40 kilometers) in diameter on the ground, with lots of people able to connect to a balloon at the simultaneously. The Loon team were able to scale up the data rate by 10 times from the onset of the project. They project coverage to be on the same level with normal LTE 4G network data rate. Project Loon's leader, Mike Cassidy, said their balloon networks can provide coverage for as much as 5,000 square kilometers (1,931 square miles) on the ground, and offer service at 15 megabits per second using a phone, or 40 megabits per second using a MiFi device.

Google Loon at Work

The outer layer of Earth's atmosphere is the troposphere, where we live and where most weather conditions take place. These balloons will float in the next layer,known as the stratosphere. The lower part of the stratosphere begins from 4 to 12 miles (6 to 20 kilometers) above the surface of the planet (smaller at the poles and biggest at the equator), and the upper stratosphere stops at about 31 miles (50 kilometers) above the Earth surface. The Loon balloons will float from 11 to 17 miles (18 to 27 kilometers) up, about twice the height of commercial aviation routes.

In the stratosphere, there is small amount of water vapor, few clouds and no weather variations. It is colder towards the base and hotter towards the peak, which stops the gases from rising up, creating a condition where there are relatively stable layers at different heights. At these layers, the wind blows in different directions and speeds in predictable manner.

Google recently started analyzing historical wind-related data and  future forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to come up with algorithms that can predict and simulate wind patterns to assist in balloon navigation. The balloons will be controlled by altering the helium to air volume ratio to move them up or down to the stratospheric level where the wind is moving in the direction Google wants them to go. They will be roller-coasting on the wind, allowing them to be powered by both solar and wind.

Google came up with an operations system known as Mission Control to constantly monitor, trace and control the balloons, and maybe signal nearby air traffic controllers of their nearness when they are moving up to the stratosphere or moving down to land. Their navigation software has been further improved over time, from relaying commands once a day to every 15 minutes. Mission Control can re-evaluate balloon flight paths every minute.

The Loon team have greatly improved their ability to control the balloons to move to particular places,ranging from a hundred meters initially to hundred kilometers. Navigation requires to be automated as much as possible, to enable it direct numerous balloons simultaneously, so as to prevent the networks from breaking down,some people will be trained to use the Mission Control software to track and control things manually, if required.

Google is able recall any balloon back to the ground for recovery by letting out gas from the envelope.Gas can also be let out automatically if a balloon is about to burst. A parachute will be automatically deployed if the balloon drops too fast. Google intends to retrieve the balloons and equipment and if possible reuse or recycle the payload.

The LTE networking equipment fitted to the balloons will operate using existing telecomms firms' spectrums and let the balloons link directly with cell phones and base stations on the ground,reducing the essence of installing specialized antennas on ground. Google intends to partner with local cell companies so people are able to hookup using LTE-enabled mobile devices. Special Loon SIM cards will be needed to link to the network.

Project Loon So Far

Initial tests,tagged "Icarus tests", commenced in August 2011. Project head Rich DeVaul and his team launched four pilot latex balloons with Linux computing equipment and a WiFi router from the San Luis Reservoir in California. They trailed them in a vehicle fitted with antennas, a WiFi card and a spectrum analyzer to analyze the signal. Subsequent tests followed until they were able to send signals from a balloon to another and setup an Internet connection in the car. The equipment was said to placed in a styrofoam cooler for some of the tests.

In 2012, the tag name was altered to Daedalus (Icarus's dad). DeVaul was chosen as the Chief Technical Architect,since he preferred working on technical issues, and Mike Cassidy was appointed as project lead. They employed aerospace engineers, network engineers, mapping specialists, energy specialists, at least one balloon expert,ex-military personnel and textile experts for developing,testing and sewing the balloons. In 2012, they collaborated with a firm Raven Aerostar, which produces balloons for NASA  and others, to assist improve the balloons.

To improve the probability of recovering equipment, the test equipment had the words "harmless science experiment" printed on it with a number to call for a reward (Google was not mentioned,since it was a secret project at that time). In October 2012, one of the test balloons was mistaken to be a UFO sighting reported in Kentucky and subsequently floated to Canada, where it went missing.

The foremost official pilot tests took place in June 2013,thirty balloons were launched from New Zealand's Christchurch city. They moved about 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) way up, and each ferried about 22 pounds of payload that linked wirelessly with specialized pre-installed round antennas based on the ground. There were around 50 testers in all, among them was the Nimmo family and the MacKenzie family, who were among the first group of people to hookup to the Internet with a balloon network. The testers were connected at 3G speeds.

Further tests were carried out in California's Central Valley, Australia, Chile and Brazil, among other several places. In June 2014, Linoca Gayoso Castelo Branco, a school in Brazil, was able to hookup to the Internet for the first time via Project Loon's LTE radio laden balloons in unison with an antenna on ground on the school roof. The next phase for Google is launching several balloons in a ring round the planet to test continuous service in places in the Southern Hemisphere. The company has problems with obtaining overflight permits in numerous places, so it  carried out large scale tests in the Southern Hemisphere where there are little or no obstacles to test flights.

In July 2015, it was made public that Google is in partnership with the country of Sri Lanka to provide the whole country of 25,000 square miles (64,750 square kilometers) and with population of 22 million people (most of whom are currently not online) with Internet access using Project Loon balloons, probably by early 2016.

A Loon balloon crashed into a palm tree in a residential area in a Los Angeles, California in September 2015, close to its proposed landing site. No casulty was or injury reported.

Future Prospects of Google Loon

There are several places where Internet service is epileptic or not available, or where it the available option is highly expensive.In 2011, when Project Loon commenced, the International Telecommunication Union(ITU) said that about 2.2 billion people were connected to the Internet. In 2015, that number has increased to about 3.2 billion. Even with this significant increase, a lot of people estimated to be around 4 billion people are without Internet access.

Even those with access don't have quality, uninterrupted high-speed broadband connectivity. Connectivity from the clouds can provide service in places that usually have issues, such as mountainous regions and places where telecommunications infrastructure has not been put in place. Networks of balloons will easier and cheaper to deploy in remote areas, including developing nations, than laying wires and setting-up cell towers and other expensive equipment, or using costly communications satellites. Networks of Google balloons can be used in emergencies,to setup Internet service back up immediately after a natural disaster has destroyed ground equipment.
Cellular carriers have hinted allowing rented access to Google Loon networks. This can make them get new customers and to offer better service at faster speeds in areas already covered. It is not free, but some of the cost savings can be passed over to customers in lower prices. Google has already entered into partnership with Vodafone in New Zealand, Telstra in Australia and Vivo and Telebras in Brazil for additional testing.
Project Loon may be a real boon for all, in an era where connection to the rest of the world comes with enormous benefits. Getting most people on the planet online may also provide benefits to Google, which depends totally on revenue from online ads and services.The company will collect payments to access Loon networks.

In 2014, Google bought a solar-powered, high-altitude drone company known as Titan Aerospace to assist in numerous projects including Project Loon and mapping,so they bought a satellite company Skybox Imaging and invested heavily in spaceflight company SpaceX. SpaceX is seeking to obtain permission  launch numerous small satellites into low orbit to provide high-speed Internet to the worldwide.

Google is not the only firm trying to bring Internet to people through the sky. Facebook commenced their Connectivity Lab with the aim of getting low-cost Internet to a lot of people worldwide using technologies such as satellites and drones. They acquired a solar-powered, high-altitude drone company known as Ascenta in 2014, and employed tech experts from NASA.
Connecting to the Internet gives people access to numerous resources the World Wide Web has to offer,ranging from communication to education to business opportunities. Numerous businesses can obtain important information and new sources of materials and products.

People in areas with little or no healthcare workers can equally get virtual medical care. Teachers and students can quickly access supplemental classroom materials, and people without access to schools can read textbooks or engage in classes online. Young future scientists and inventors can find ideas, resources and may be collaborators online.
Access can improve an area's economic activity. According to Google Loon's project lead Mike Cassidy, increasing a country's Internet penetration by 10 percent results to about  1.4 percent increase in GDP per year.
Google intends to launch commercial services on Project Loon by late 2016.

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