Google engineers parachutes, wins new patent for Project Loon

If one of your phobias involves a cascade of malfunctioning Project Loon airborne-Internet balloons plummeting from the sky, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) indicates there is no need to fret. In its latest video missive to the masses regarding Project Loon, Google addressed the issue of using parachutes to cushion the trip back to earth for malfunctioning Loon balloons that are brought down ahead of schedule.

According to Sameera Ponda, a Project Loon aerospace engineer, the normal method of bringing down a balloon entails letting enough helium via of a valve on the top to achieve a desired descent rate. In case of emergencies, however, Google has created a parachute deployment system to safely bring down individual balloons.

Because the air is thinner at higher altitudes, there is less for a parachute to grab onto during descent. But Google said it could not simply use larger parachutes because "the additional weight would require a bigger balloon to carry it, which would then require an even bigger parachute to safely catch that bigger balloon, which would then require an even bigger balloon to carry that bigger parachute…"

Google settled on a system that includes a smaller pilot chute that catches air quickly and pulls out the main parachute. The company has tested various methods for launching the pilot chute as far away as possible from the balloon in order to increase chances for the chute to grab lots of air and properly deploy, Ponda said.

Engineer Sameera Ponda demonstrates the Loon's parachute system. (Source: Google / YouTube)

"When I see a Loon balloon coming down with a parachute, I'm extremely happy to see that our system has actually worked after the amount of engineering effort we've put into it," she added.

Meanwhile, Google was recently awarded a patent related to its Project Loon efforts, and the patent application highlights how Loon balloons could be used to serve increased wireless bandwidth demand in the event of a natural disaster or even a planned event such as a concert.

The patent application describes how balloons in a high-altitude balloon network might be controlled in various ways so that they "clump" over desired areas based on the projected change in bandwidth demand.  "The user of the balloon network could represent an individual user, a corporate user, a government, or any other entity that may have an anticipated need for bandwidth (e.g., Internet services, communications services, etc.) at a specified future time period in a specified area," Google said.

Though Google's PR surrounding Project Loon has largely focused on extending Internet access to bridge the digital divide in unserved and underserved communities, the patent could be indicative of ways Google might seek to monetize Loon in areas that are generally viewed as having sufficient broadband service.

For more:
- see this Google video
- see this Google patent application

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