Google hopes to have Project Loon customers by 2016

That loony project where Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) launches balloons into the stratosphere to provide Internet connectivity to the unconnected all over the world? Turns out, the program's achievements are surprising even the program's director at the same time Googlers are calling out some of their best-performing balloons.

According to Slate.com, some 75 Google balloons are airborne, hovering somewhere over the far reaches of the Southern Hemisphere, automatically adjusting their altitudes based on complex algorithms in order to catch wind currents that will keep them on course.

Provided it stays on course, Google believes that by next year, it will be able to create a continuous, 50-mile-wide ring of Internet service around the globe. Project Loon Director Mike Cassidy told Slate that he anticipates the first customers in rural South America, southern Africa or Oceania will be able to sign up for cellular LTE service provided by Google balloons by 2016.

What are the chances this can really happen? "When I first started on this project, I would have said, like, 5 percent," Cassidy told Slate. "But we're getting further and further, and what's amazing is that we haven't found anything that could keep it from working yet." While nothing in life is 100 percent, "it's looking pretty good."

Last month, it was revealed that Google is teaming up with Telstra to test 20 Loon balloons in Australia, with the telco giving Google access to wireless spectrum and terrestrial base stations. 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 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.

In a blog post shared via Google Hangouts last month, Google revealed some of the lessons learned over the past year. One of them has to do with the best form of footwear to use when the manufacturing team needs to walk on the balloon envelopes. It turns out that "very fluffy socks" ensure the least amount of friction when building the balloons. That seemingly simple discovery will help prevent leaks and refine the automated manufacturing process so the balloons will last longer in the stratosphere.

Last week, Google introduced its inaugural Golden Balloon Awards 2014, taking the opportunity to mark some of the greatest feats achieved by its Loon balloons as 2014 winds down and it finishes landing the fleet for analysis and upgrade.

At No. 1 is "The Marathoner," which launched from New Zealand in July 2014 and kept going until it reached 134 days aloft before being brought down to land in Chile. "Constantly monitoring such a long-lasting balloon throughout its lifetime has provided us with lots of valuable data that can help us replicate this success in the future," Google said.


The Marathoner balloon began its 134-day journey in New Zealand before landing in Chile in November. (Image source: Google)

The No. 2 "Global Traveler" took its time discovering the Southern Hemisphere. It launched from Brazil in June 2014 as part of its LTE test and maneuvered over 23 countries across South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania before landing. The No. 3 "Sprint Star" was the quickest balloon that traveled 324 km/h while rushing to the South Pacific Ocean over Antarctica.

At No. 4, the "Frosty Survivor" endured the coldest temperature of all the balloons, at -83°C (-117°F) while traveling over the Chilean/Argentine border. "The cold is a real challenge for our balloon manufacturing team," Google said. "At such low temperatures the balloon envelope can become brittle and fragile. Selecting the right material and stress-testing it at extremely low temperatures in our labs has helped ensure that Loon balloons are durable enough to handle these temperatures for long periods of time."

Google said that all Loon balloons fly roughly 20 kilometers above the earth's surface, twice as high as commercial jets. Its "High Flier" balloon, at No. 5, reached a record altitude of 25.8 kilometers while traveling over the South Pacific Ocean--nearly three times the height of Mount Everest. Altitude control is fundamental for maneuvering balloons, as different altitudes have different wind speeds and directions that Google's planning algorithms can predict and use to get the balloons where they need to be. 

Google didn't say if it had a name for the balloon a sheep farmer found in South Africa, but it does have a recovery team for when the objects land on the ground. The company says that the better it gets at navigating the balloons, the better it can land them in pre-selected recovery zones.

For more:
- see the Slate.com article
- see this Google post

Related articles
Google executive tells mobile industry Loon is not a threat as team reveals lessons learned
Google Project Loon: Around the world in 22 days
Facebook drones may take on Google's Project Loon balloons
Google engineers parachutes, wins new patent for Project Loon
Google's Project Loon is full of hot air, contends famed balloonist
Google contends Project Loon, balloon-powered broadband, is crazy enough to work

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