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Google Loon Offers a Sneak Preview of Internet Everywhere

There are around 783 million without clean water and 2.5 billion without adequate sanitation. 1.2 billion people do not have electricity. The number of people with access to the internet today is around 3.5 billion. The big picture of progress is improving, this isn’t a critique of priorities, although some could be made. Instead this is a look at moonshots and innovation. Google are attempting to use balloons to beam internet to the world with Project Loon

Coming from Alphabet’s (nee Google) X lab the idea is to fly 12 meter tall, helium filled balloons at an altitude of 18-25km. Each balloon can connect an area 40km in diameter using LTE wireless communications. The balloons are managed from a central command post at the X lab, steering takes place using thermals. Initially the navigation was going to rely on a ring of balloons sailing around the globe. Developments in artificial intelligence have made it possible for the balloons to ride winds in clusters, making them more like geostationary satellites.

No one has gotten internet from Loon recently, in 2013 a farmer in New Zealand got online, that’s about it though. Past experiences of bringing the internet to the developing world have not gone entirely smoothly. Facebook Basics attracted ire for being opposed to net neutrality, back in the days when Facebook was still trying to maintain it wasn’t a media company. Partners in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Brazil and Australia are reportedly interested, united by their difficult terrains.

Murders and Acquisitions

It may be that this moonshot lands amongst the stars. A similar project at the X lab that had solar-powered drones instead of balloons was shut down in January 2017. In 2014 Google acquired New Mexico’s Titan Aerospace, the team was brought into X lab in 2015 and the high-altitude UAV program was shuttered not long after. Feasability studies suggested they were unviable. In contrast to this called by Google, Facebook has bought into the solar drone dream. The Aquila drone is 130 foot long and developed in the UK. A largely successful flight in June 2016 was hampered by a poor landing, the drone was blown off course and had the end of its wing snap off.

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Mathew Sayer

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