Google's Project Loon begins tests in California

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) has expanded field testing for its Project Loon beyond New Zealand and into California's Central Valley, which is about a two-hour drive from the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Google Project Loon balloon

A Project Loon balloon launches over Christchurch during initial New Zealand testing. (Screencap source: Google)

The company late last month launched a small, test version of its low-cost, high-altitude balloons at a rural California airfield used mainly by crop-dusting planes. The launch was part of a series of Project Loon tests planned in the area, reported the San Jose Mercury News.

Project Loon first came to public attention in June, when Google announced its vision of deploying a ring of radio-equipped balloons to fly around the globe on stratospheric winds 12 miles above the earth and deliver Internet access at 3G or better speeds. At that time, Google launched 30 balloons and initiated a pilot program in the Canterbury area of New Zealand.

The demo balloon launched in California last month was outfitted with radio equipment that was not designed to enable an Internet connection. The 12-foot balloon was smaller than the 45-foot ones used in New Zealand. Further, the balloon was filled only with helium, while the balloons in New Zealand were filled with helium and air, so the latter could be pumped in or out to raise or lower the balloon.

The test balloon used in California was designed to travel some 150 miles before landing somewhere on the ground.

Via a webcast for Maker Camp, a free online summer program enabled by Google+, children and other viewers were able to watch and learn about the California launch.

Google has a bevy of technical issues to address if Project Loon's vision of using plastic balloons equipped with radio gear, processors and solar panels to deliver wireless broadband access to rural and remote areas has any chance of succeeding.

"Our main challenge right now is power," Sameera Ponda, told the San Jose Mercury News. Ponda, an aerospace engineer working on Project Loon, explained that each balloon's radio equipment and computers must be powered to run for weeks at a time, day and night, in frigid high-altitude temperatures.

Project Loon also faces significant geopolitical issues. A global balloon-based network providing Internet access would need to reach agreements with multiple regulators and possibly international bodies.  Further, Recon Analytics analyst (and FierceWireless contributor) Roger Entner has said foreign governments may want access to the network to ensure it is not used for espionage.

Google is far from the only company interested in using balloons to deliver broadband access. Oceus Networks recently demonstrated how an LTE-enabled balloon platform could be used to quickly deliver broadband services to first responders following an emergency or natural disaster.

For more:
- see this San Jose Mercury News article

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