Around the world in 80 days? Pssh. Google did it in 22… with a solar-powered balloon. Yep, the Project Loon team provided an update on what’s been going on with the seemingly crazy experiment to bring internet access to the world’s remotest regions — and it seems to be going relatively well.
The project, which was announced in June last year, involves floating giant balloons into the stratosphere to beam internet access around the globe. Back then, the team said that had found a way to move the balloons across the globe by using a combination of wind and solar powers, and steering them into the path of the winds they want them to catch. Now it’s given us a glimpse into how that’s been working out.
In a Google+ post, the Googlers explain that one of their balloons (I 167) just made a 22 day trek around the globe, and is now starting its second lap. The balloon also achieved a project milestone, racking up the team’s 500 000th kilometre travelled to date on its flight across regions from the Antarctic to New Zealand. The balloon clocked between 468 km and 1708 km a day, speeding up as it caught the ‘Roaring Forties’ — strong west-to-east winds over the ocean in the southern hemisphere.
Of course, this the project is still very much in its testing phase. The team has been using these flights to improve the design of the balloons — for example, they moved from a previous model with just one solar panel to one with two solar panels facing diagonally, which allows the structure to catch more sunlight around the poles. They’ve also been tracking wind movements so they can ensure the balloons will be able to navigate effectively to provide constant internet coverage year round. As the team explains:
Traversing the stratosphere is particularly challenging this time of year because the winds actually change direction as the southern hemisphere moves from warmer to colder weather, resulting in divergent wind paths that are hard to predict. Since last June, we’ve been using the wind data we’ve collected during flights to refine our prediction models and are now able to forecast balloon trajectories twice as far in advance.
In addition, the pump that moves air in or out of the balloon has become three times more efficient, making it possible to change altitudes more rapidly to quickly catch winds going in different directions. There were times, for example, when this balloon could have been pulled into the polar vortex – large, powerful wind currents that whip around in a circle near the stratosphere in the polar region – but these improvements enabled us to maneuver around it and stay on course.
Google isn’t the only tech company working on bringing connectivity to the globe through the air though — Facebook also recently announced its plans to use lasers, satellites and solar-powered drones to bring the next billion people online. Its CEO,
the hoodied one Mark Zuckerberg, has been sceptical about the possibility of using balloons, saying drones and satellites are more cost efficient and easier to control.
Still, both projects are exciting developments — if not for their crazy sci-fi comparisons, then for their potential to bring access and information to people who haven’t been reached by terrestrial connections.