Google executive tells mobile industry Loon is not a threat as team reveals lessons learned

A Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) executive presenting at a mobile industry event in Shanghai, China, assured the mobile industry last week that it need not be afraid of Project Loon, which is trying to bring the Internet to everyone, anywhere.

"This is not about disruption, but I do urge you to do better and faster and urge you to think differently," Mohammad Gawdat, vice president of Google's X division, told delegates at Huawei's Global Mobile Broadband Forum, according to Mobile World Live. "Loon isn't disruptive – this is outside the infrastructure you are currently building. Billions of people don't have access to the Internet."

Gawdat also spoke of the challenges of "getting the balloons to form a mesh of towers 40 km from one another and to go where you want it to," according to MWL. In October of last year, the project switched from using Wi-Fi technology to LTE. A commercial launch is planned for 2016, the publication said.

Google is teaming up with Telstra to test 20 Loon balloons in Australia next month. The telco will give Google access to wireless spectrum and terrestrial base stations, according to The Wall Street Journal. Google is running similar tests with Britain's Vodafone in New Zealand and Spain's Telefonica in South America.

Project Loon began in June 2013 with an experimental pilot in New Zealand, where a small group of Project Loon pioneers tested Loon technology. The results of the pilot test, as well as subsequent tests in New Zealand, California's Central Valley and Northeast Brazil, are being used to improve the technology in preparation for the next stages of the project, according to Google.

Google last week also posted an update on what it has learned since moving ahead with the project, which was named Loon in part because of the crazy nature of the idea. Google said its Loon balloons have traveled 3 million kilometers since the project began last year--that's like going to the moon and back nearly 4 times over.

Google test Loon Nevada
A Loon balloon is lifted into position for radio test launch in Nevada in October 2014. (Image source: Google)

In the course of the past year, program leaders have learned a great deal about what it takes to bring the Internet to everyone, no matter where they are. They've discovered, for example, that "very fluffy socks" make for the best type of footwear for the manufacturing team to wear when they need to walk on the balloon envelopes.

"This is just one of the hundreds of discoveries that has helped prevent leaks and refine our automated manufacturing process so that our balloons now last 10 times longer in the stratosphere than they did in 2013," Google said, adding that many of the balloons are now lasting 100 days or more. The current record is 130 days.

Filling just one Loon balloon for flight equates to inflating about 7,000 party balloons. The program has developed autofill equipment that will be capable of inflating a balloon in less than 5 minutes. The program also has matured enough that it can launch up to 20 balloons per day.

As for making sure the balloons hit their target, that's getting better as well. Google said that by constantly computing thousands of trajectory simulations, it's getting closer to its target locations in terms of where the balloons should be. One flight came within 1.5 km of the target destination over a flight of 9,000 km through a process involving predicting and sailing with the stratospheric winds.

"This is great for getting our balloons to where users need them, and great for getting balloons to our recovery zones at the end of their lifetime to make our recovery team's job that much easier," the company said.

The recovery team in South Africa was busy after a sheep farmer stumbled upon one of the test balloons. The farmer's family was told that a local Loon representative would come by to collect it, the WSJ reported.   

For more:
- see this Mobile World Live article
- see this blog post
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this Venture Beat story
- see this TechCrunch article

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