Weather balloons naturally expand as they rise into high altitudes where air pressure decreases, and they eventually get so high that they burst. However, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) indicates its Project Loon airborne broadband balloons should be able to avoid such a frightful and early demise as they surf the stratosphere's winds.
"The altitude that we fly at is actually above 99 percent of the atmosphere, which means that we have a lot of the same physical challenges as flying in outer space yet we still have to deal with the chaotic nature of the wind patterns," said Keith Bonawitz, computational choreographer for Google X, Google's secretive lab, in a YouTube video.
"We need to know where the winds are in the stratosphere so we can surf those winds in order to go different places," he said.
Google been using data from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regarding predicted stratospheric wind directions. One shortcoming in NOAA's wind data is that it comes from weather balloons, which spend a limited time floating ever higher in the stratosphere before they pop and therefore don't have a lot of ongoing information to share.
Google's test balloons, which the company tracks via GPS and can remotely steer, are flying at the same speed as the wind currents. Because the company intends to keep a fleet of balloons aloft at all times, Google expects it will be able to gather vast amounts of information from its own balloons regarding wind currents, which it intends to share with NOAA.
"As we have better understanding, that's enabling us to fly more balloons with greater confidence and provide ourselves with even more data. So we have this ever-improving understanding of the stratosphere," Bonawitz said.
He noted that as Google's fleet comes fully online, the data it provides should help improve the quality of wind predictions coming out of NOAA. That could make a nice payback for NOAA's ongoing assistance in helping Project Loon remain airborne.
Google announced Project Loon in June, describing the plan as a way to deliver low-cost Internet access via balloons. Early testing is being conducted in New Zealand and California.
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