Project Loon: Appropriate or Full of Hot Air?

by Miguel Benavides, Rowie Chua, Katherine Khoo, Alexandra Martin, Juana Montelibano, Laura Que, Maegan Santos

On October 16, 2012, the people of Kentucky spotted something in the sky and it was nothing like they have ever seen before. It was described as “a glimmering, tubelike shape hovering ominously high above” by Allen Epling, an amateur astronomer who observed this object for hours. Some UFO-fanatics even speculated that it could be continuing visits from the Galactic Federation fleet. While everyone was in confusion of what it could be, Rich DeVaul and his Google Team knew the answer for they were the ones who were responsible for the unidentifiable flying object. They were testing out their new project, Project Loon (Levy.)   loon5        

What is Project Loon?

            Aiming to provide wireless internet connection to rural and remote areas across the globe, Project Loon is Google’s latest experiment that involves solar-powered balloons that are sent to the stratosphere at an altitude of about 20 km and are controlled by the winds towards the desired direction (“Introducing Project Loon”). According to Google’s official video, two out of three do not have the luxury of easily access to the Internet. Google’s Project Loon could be one step closer to the solution.

Initiated less than two years ago, Project Loon was formulated in Google’s high-risk research arm, Google X. Rich DeVaul, an expert in wearable technology whose MIT dissertation involved “Memory Glasses”, was tasked to become a “rapid evaluator”. His primary duty was to consider almost impossible ideas that just might turn out to work, and point out the reasons why it wouldn’t. “Our goal at Google X is to kill a project as fast as we can,” says Astro Teller, who runs the lab with Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Project Loon seemed like one of the projects that were likely to be rejected. There are a lot of obvious reasons why it would not work. One of the main reasons was how ballooning works because its limits involved centuries-old mysteries that seemed to be unsolvable. Another is manpower to maintain navigation and power for the long-duration flights that Google would need. DeVaul, though, had an idea – steering the balloons by adjusting the altitude to find wind currents towards the right direction. Google, which is good in computing things, could grab government data available to control wind currents in the stratosphere. DeVaul was confident enough to pursue the project since his task to spot the flaw is unsuccessful.

In August 2011, DeVaul started its trials in California’s Central Valley. He and some colleagues would launch a hand-made balloon with a Linux computer and some antennas on board, then drive his Subaru Forester to follow the balloons around. Most flights failed yet none of the balloon terminations, however, gave DeVaul a reason to lose hope and terminate the project, no matter how hard he tried. “It was really impressive how long he carried that goal of killing the idea,” says Astro Teller.

The project was then officially announced as a Google project on June 14, 2013. Succeeding the official announcement on June 14, Google commenced the pilot experiment in New Zealand where they blasted 30 balloons in coordination with the Civil Aviation Authority. Much to their surprise, the team found out that the project somehow worked and local users around Christchurch and the Canterbury Region benefited from balloon-powered Internet. The trial run in Tekapo was undoubtedly successful.

Project Loon, still in its experimental stage, is way too far from being a dead-end. The mere concept of it entails a global solution to those the majority who have minimal or no connectivity at all. Google now plans to launch these balloons around the globe for a philanthropic cause- to help us connect.

How does it work?

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            The Project Loon balloons are designed to have three main parts – the balloon envelope, the solar panels, and the small box. The inflatable part of the balloon is called the balloon envelope. They are “made from sheets of polyethylene plastic and stand fifteen meters wide by twelve meters tall when fully inflated.” (http://www.google.com/loon/how/) They are uniquely made for use in superpressure balloons, which last longer than weather balloons because they can endure higher pressure from the air inside when the balloons reach the minimum altitude where it is able to float. Gas is released from the envelope to bring the balloon down in a controlled descent when a balloon is ready to be taken out of service. In the small chance that a balloon drops too fast, the parachute that is connected to the envelope is deployed. The solar panels that power each balloon’s electronics are found in between the envelope and the small box. These solar panels can produce 100 Watts of power which is sufficient to keep the unit going while also charging a battery for use at night when the balloon is under full sun. Project Loon is self-sufficient using only renewable energy sources because its movement is wind dependent and its energy is sun dependent. Lastly, the small box that hangs below the envelope acts like the basket of a hot air balloon. It contains circuit boards as the control panel of the system, radio antennas for communication with other balloons and the Internet antennas on the ground, and batteries for solar power storage so the balloons can operate during the night.

Project Loon balloons are high-altitude balloons that travel around 20 km in the stratosphere. Winds in this part of the atmosphere are mostly constant and slow-moving from 5-20 mph. Two things to observe in each layer of the winds in the stratosphere are direction and magnitude. Software algorithms are used by Project Loon to determine where the position of its balloons need to be, then moves each one into a layer of wind blowing in the right direction. By being able to place the balloons properly in the stratosphere, the balloons can be arranged to form one large communications network. The Project Loon balloons acquire power from solar panels that are card table in size that dangle just below and gather enough electricity in four hours to power the internet signal to the ground stations for a day. There are ground stations far below with Internet capabilities about 100 kilometers apart that bounce signals up to the balloons. The signals would jump forward, from one balloon to the next, along a backbone of up to five balloons. This makes anyone in the world who has a Project Loon antenna and is within range to a balloon, easily have access to the internet.

What social problems does it intend to address?

            The Internet has a lot of advantages to offer to its wide array of users. Some of these advantages are its global presence, easy accessibility and wide-scale communication (“The Importance of the Internet”.) Its presence can be found in almost all parts of the world, and you can easily have access to it. In fact, when some of us consider what restaurant to eat in or what hotel to check in, we would first check if they provide free wifi connection. Through the Internet, wide-scale communication was made possible and easier. Keeping in touch with family members across the globe can easily be done with different applications for that purpose such as apps like Facetime and Skype. Another powerful thing that the Internet offers us is information. Information about everything is available on the Internet and this is easily accessible to almost everyone. With such readily available information, it has become easier for people to work and study. This is a factor to a faster development and improvement of a society. The Internet has really become a vital aspect of our lives and some, including I, cannot live without it anymore. But for something that is considered to be so important, why is it not available for everyone?

It is said that everyone has free access to the Internet. This is true, but it remains to be only for those who have the means to be able to pay for access to it and this is something not everyone has. In fact, among the current seven billion population of the Earth today, only 2.7 billion are online. The other 4.3 billion are in underdeveloped areas that cannot afford to connect to the Internet (Levy.) But when you think about it, those who do not have access to it are the people who need it the most. The things that the Internet are able to offer to its consumers are things that can help with the development of a nation. For example, those who are unable to attend school can learn things from the Internet and even download educational books that can help with further studies. Farmers who are experiencing difficulties with their crops can get information and knowledge share by others in the Internet for better harvest. In cases of calamities, they can be immediately informed through the Internet of the current conditions of their area and could respond accordingly. Thus, avoiding avoidable accidents and disasters. These are just a few situational examples on how the Internet can help the financially unstable. Through this, those people will be able improve their living conditions because they are now better informed and educated.

This is what Google is trying to address through Project Loon. They are trying to make the Internet accessible to everyone, and when they say everyone, they really mean everyone, all seven billion inhabitants of our world. Thus, everyone can enjoy the benefits that the Internet has to offer.  

What barriers does the project need to overcome?

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Project Loon is attempting to give everyone Internet access by floating a plethora of balloons that can provide internet connection across the globe. Although conceptually sound, it however becomes difficult when it becomes grounded in reality, where governments strictly control their air space, with some countries going so far as banning transits into theirs (Talbot). If Google intends to fly its balloons over a country’s territory, they will have to get permission from the country’s government first. This is a difficult obstacle to overcome given that there are countries that don’t perceive the United States of America in a friendly manner (Fitchard); it doesn’t help the fact that Google is an American company (Villasenor). So what will happen if a country doesn’t want Google’s balloons in its territory? The only thing that can be done is for the balloons to follow a predetermined path across the world that avoids said countries; however, the balloons aren’t tuned that way just yet. All that Google can control is the altitude the balloons are in, from there the balloons are dependent on the movement of the air currents on that specific altitude. With recent strains in international relations, Google may not be so audacious in stepping over aviation bounds to further implement their plans. Another difficulty in providing everyone with internet access using the balloons is the fact that not everyone has the means to even own hardware that can connect to the internet (Talbot). Groups of people who barely have enough to eat three times a day, will most likely not have the means to even connect to the internet provided by these balloons, rendering the balloons almost useless in such areas.

Can we consider it as ‘appropriate technology’?

As it is designed to bring the Internet to those who do not have ready-to-access Internet connections in their areas, Project Loon can be regarded as an appropriate technology because it caters to a need that is relevant in a world like ours today. Since most of us have been relying on the Internet for almost everything we do, Project Loon allows networks to be built among the entire global community. This innovative design is powered by renewable energy sources such as the wind and sun. Even the materials used for the balloon are economical. Sheets of polyethylene plastic, a chemically resistant, durable, inexpensive plastic material, are used to create the balloon envelope.

Future Direction of this technology

            Google’s ambitious project is still in its infancy, and it will take many years of testing and marketing for it to be accepted by the global community. Its potential, however, is quite imaginably ludicrous and philanthropic at the same time. To set up a global network that would cover nearly every area of the world, thereby connecting nearly every single human being on the planet, is a grand, noble undertaking, which doubles as a marketing strategy to invite other nations or corporations to support the project. It is possible that its philanthropic vision will garner much support from the international community as the technology proves itself over time. Such support would hinge on the current trend of the economy’s growing dependence on technological infrastructure. If the developed nations can expand network coverage everywhere, their capitalistic influence would be greater. These areas that would then have access to the Internet would in turn become members of a global community that furthermore engages in the online market. As an economic and business venture, Project Loon shows great potential to become both lucrative and philanthropic.

Its ethical and socio-political implications deserve some discussion. What need is there for people afflicted with malaria in a remote part of Africa to be able to connect to the internet? This is precisely the point raised by Bill Gates in his criticism of the project. Yet, we believe this is the wrong kind of question to ask. The project has no intention of becoming a cure to deadly diseases or a panacea to all the world’s evils; instead, it serves to connect people and allow the seamless transfer and collection of information. This information could, one may imagine, be in the form of a local map showing data streams of the areas affected by, say, a recent flood, or perhaps the number of people afflicted with a certain disease. The project grants the potential for other initiatives to seamlessly and efficiently implement their own philanthropic ventures. For example, consider an initiative to provide underserved areas a drug that treats an infectious virus. If Project Loon’s technology were in place, then it would mean this new company can gather live data about each area’s state of health along other data metrics that may be useful, such as the exact location of the affected and the population density. The real advantage would be real-time tracking, which in turn, grants those taking the initiative to gather live feedback that can be used to calculate effectively the optimal way of distributing the drug.

Furthermore, the aforementioned criticism of the lack of actual hardware devices to connect to the Internet does pose a serious problem. In underdeveloped areas, such technology is not even available. What then does the future hold for Project Loon for these unconnectable places? One could notice the ever present trend of computer chips getting cheaper and cheaper since we continue to make more and more of them. The cost then to manufacture equipment that can connect to the Internet consequently decreases, so other initiatives that perhaps would like to implement a tracking system can do so by cheaply providing these equipment and training locals in using them.

Project Loon’s future is, as of the moment, quite uncertain, but given the recent trends in political and technological progress, it is possible for the project to succeed, if not exceed its initial or surface value as a mere business venture. Its potential benefit for humanity may not be direct, but it can serve as an important instrument for other initiatives that do have a direct impact in helping human society.

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Conclusion

Project Loon is far from being a dead-end. Still in its experimental stage, this project by Google pushes the envelope in terms of what is innovative and essential in the twenty-first century. The mere concept of it entails a global solution to the majority who have minimal or no connectivity at all. Google now plans to launch these balloons around the globe for a philanthropic cause- to help us connect. And while there are several issues raised about its feasibility and its purpose in the global community, Google sees a greater cause in this venture of theirs. By providing access to information available online, more things are possible with just a click of a button. For Google to achieve this in a few years’ time would be a marvelous feat because then, even the unreachable would be reached and more opportunities would be opened for all whether it be in education, health, business and trade, and government policy.

For now, Google has to keep on developing Project Loon in order for it to be successful. What they have accomplished so far is already quite remarkable and the future seems promising for the project. Whether or not Project Loon truly takes off in the future (pun intended), one thing is certain: it is a great example of appropriate technology.

References:

Brodkin, Jon. “Google’s “Project Loon” flying Internet coming to homes in California.” Ars Technica. N.p., 21 Aug 2013. Web. 1 Sep 2013. <http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2013/08/googles-project-loon-flying-internet-coming-to-homes-in-california/&gt;.

Fitchard, Kevin. “Project Loon: Google’s Biggest Obstacle Isn’t Technology. It’s Politics — Tech News and Analysis.” GigaOM. N.p., 21 June 2013. Web. 01 Sept. 2013. <http://gigaom.com/2013/06/21/project-loon-googles-biggest-obstacle-isnt-technology-its-politics/>.

Levy, Steven. N.p.. Web. September 1, 2013. <http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/?p=160141>.

“The Importance of the Internet.” netinternals. N.p.. Web. 31 Aug 2013. <http://www.netinternals.com/network-solutions/index.asp?trade=the-importance-of-the-internet>.

Villasenor, John. “Can Google Fly Its Internet Balloons Wherever It Wants?” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 16 June 2013. Web. 01 Sept. 2013. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/johnvillasenor/2013/06/16/can-google-fly-its-internet-balloons-wherever-it-wants/&gt;.

Levy, Stephen. “How Google Will Use High-Flying Balloons to Deliver Internet to the         Hinterlands.”Exclusive. N.p., 14 06 2013. Web. 31 Aug 2013. <http://www.wired.com/business/2013/06/google_internet_balloons/all/google.com/loon>.

“Introducing Project Loon: Balloon-powered Internet access.” Blogspot. Google, 14 Jun 2013. Web. 1 Sep 2013. <http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2013/06/introducing-project-loon.html>.

Talbot, David. “African Entrepreneurs Deflate Google’s Internet Balloon Idea.” MIT Technology Review. N.p., 20 June 2013. Web. 01 Sept. 2013. <http://www.technologyreview.com/news/516186/african-entrepreneurs-deflate-googles-internet-balloon-idea/>.

Perry, Nick, and Martha Mendoza. “GOOGLE LAUNCHES INTERNET-BEAMING BALLOONS.” The Big Story. Associated Press, 15 June 2013. Web. 01 Sept. 2013. <http://bigstory.ap.org/article/google-begins-launching-internet-beaming-balloons >

“Project Loon: How Loon Works.” Project Loon. Google, n.d. Web. 01 Sept. 2013. <“Project Loon: How Loon Works.” Project Loon. Google, n.d. Web. 01 Sept. 2013.>

 

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