Skip to main content

Up, up and away: Google to launch Wi-Fi balloon experiment

By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
June 15, 2013 -- Updated 1551 GMT (2351 HKT)
Google says it wants to build a ring of balloons to fly around the world on the stratospheric winds and bring Internet access to all
Google says it wants to build a ring of balloons to fly around the world on the stratospheric winds and bring Internet access to all
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The balloons are designed to bring the Internet to remote places, Google says
  • 30 balloons are being released in New Zealand for a trial of the technology
  • The superpressure balloons carry radio transmitters and GPS, use solar power
  • Homes fitted with a special antenna should be able to connect to the balloon network

(CNN) -- Google is preparing to conquer a new dimension: the stratosphere. The Internet giant is releasing 30 high-tech balloons in a trial of technology designed to bring the Internet to places where people are not yet connected.

The balloons are being sent up into the sky from New Zealand's South Island this month in the first trial of a pioneering system dubbed Project Loon.

According to Google, "Project Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters."

Google estimates that two-thirds of the global population is without fast, affordable Internet access. So while it sounds like something from the realms of science fiction, if successful, the project could make a difference to many people around the world.

Read more: Using potatoes for inflight wi-fi test

What's Waze, and why did Google buy it?
Will Google's e-commerce erase PayPal?
Don't bring Google Glass to Vegas
Go sightseeing with the new Google Maps

The testers are from Christchurch and parts of Canterbury, New Zealand, and the test balloons will fly around the 40th parallel south, Google says.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key was in Christchurch on Saturday to help unveil the project, according to local media reports. Residents have also been invited to a special event at the local air force museum Sunday to find out more.

Images of a test balloon launch on Google+ show one floating, eerie and translucent, above snow-capped mountains.

Once released, the balloons will float in the stratosphere above 60,000 feet (18,300 meters), twice as high as airplanes and the weather, Google says. Their altitude will be controlled from "Loon Mission Control" using special software to allow them to pick up layers of wind traveling in the right direction and form a balloon network.

If all goes to plan, about 60 people who've had a special antenna fixed on their homes for the trial should be able to connect to the balloon network. The signal will bounce from balloon to balloon, then to the Internet back on Earth. Hundreds of people will be able to connect to one balloon at a time.

Read more: Google unveils touchscreen laptop

The superpressure balloon envelopes, made from sheets of polyethylene plastic, stand nearly 40 feet tall when fully inflated. They are designed to maintain a constant volume and be longer-lasting than weather balloons.

The balloons are equipped with antennas with specialized radio frequency technology, Google says, and each one can provide connectivity to a ground area about 25 miles (40 kilometers) in diameter at speeds comparable to 3G service.

They also carry instruments to monitor weather conditions and allow them to be tracked by GPS, powered by solar panels that will store excess energy for nighttime operation. Each has a parachute in case they need to be brought down.

It will be very difficult to see the balloons with the naked eye, except during launch, Google says.

In any case, it may be a while before would-be Internet users elsewhere start connecting via balloon.

According to the Project Loon website, the technology is still being tested to see if it's viable and what problems would have to be overcome to make it more widely available.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0250 GMT (1050 HKT)
The comparisons are inevitable: A student-led campaign challenges Beijing authorities for greater freedom. Could Hong Kong protests lead to another Tiananmen?
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0354 GMT (1154 HKT)
With an efficient subway, inexpensive taxis and a good public bus system, Hong Kong is normally an easy city to navigate ...
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Experts believe that ISIS may be using a Spanish enclave to bring jihad to Europe.
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0752 GMT (1552 HKT)
In a country with not enough toilets, scavengers are paid just $5 a day to scoop human waste.
September 28, 2014 -- Updated 2332 GMT (0732 HKT)
CNN's Ivan Watson was in the middle of a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong when things got out of hand.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The world's animal population has halved in 40 years as humans put unsustainable demands on Earth, a new report warns.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1249 GMT (2049 HKT)
Every day, refugees and migrants risk their lives as they seek a new life. Now, a new report puts a figure to the number of victims.
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0928 GMT (1728 HKT)
It's a frightening prospect for South Koreans: secret North Korean tunnels under Seoul
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1442 GMT (2242 HKT)
Mainstream commentators must promote positive role models to Muslims feeling victimized, writes Ghaffar Hussain.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 0613 GMT (1413 HKT)
Two men familiar with inside knowledge of ISIS speak with CNN's Arwa Damon.
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0115 GMT (0915 HKT)
If you're lucky, your train might be delayed.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT