One of Google X’s Project Loon balloons crashes in the Karoo

Planet Loon balloon

A Karoo farmer has stumbled upon a Planet Loon balloon that crashed on his farm.

Beeld reported yesterday that Urbanus Botha, a farmer in the Karoo, a vast semi-arid region in the South African interior, at first thought it was a weather balloon from the nearby weather station at De Aar.

Botha called the weather station but nobody answered, so he devised another use for it. He put it in his pickup truck as he thought it could come in handy because he was in the process of painting his shed.

“The huge piece of plastic filled my whole van,” Botha said.

Read more: Orange wants to bridge SA’s digital divide with free WiFi initiative

Botha realised that his plan was not without loopholes. He soon realised that the “piece of plastic” contained several electronic components. His 20-year-old daughter, Sarita, was also beguiled by the sight of the “plastic” that fell from the sky, but because she is tech savvy, took photos and sent them to her two brothers, John and Benny. The two noticed the words “Made in the USA” and “Google X” on the pictures.

Planet Loon parts
image of the fallen parts by Sarita

“We realised the balloon was part of the Google Loon Project,” Sarita said.

In the past week or so, Google has publicly announced that it is testing Project Loon – its attempt at providing high-speed wireless Internet accessibility to rural, remote and underserved areas of the world – in Australia. It has also announced that Project Loon can now launch up to 20 balloons per day, and they fly 10 times longer than they did in 2013. What Google forgot to mention is that it is testing the service in South Africa too – or at least it did not inform Botha.

Project Loon began with a pilot in June 2013, when Google launched thirty balloons from New Zealand’s South Island and beamed the internet to a small group of pilot testers.

Since then, the pilot test has expanded to include a greater number of people over a wider area including Brazil, California and now, evidently, South Africa.

“We’ve been testing a number of long distance flights in the Southern Hemisphere, coordinating with local air traffic control when we fly over countries,” Google said.

The balloons ascend until they reach the stratosphere, where they drift higher than 18 km (60 000 ft), above the altitudes used for airplanes, with each balloon designed to stay in the air for approximately 100 days.

Signals are transmitted from the balloons to a specialised Internet antenna mounted to the side of a home or workplace, or directly to LTE-enabled devices.

Project Loon’s presence in South Africa does not seem to have been a secret to everyone. There are reports that Google has been in touch with the South African air traffic control before flying over the country.

In an official statement, a Google spokesperson said: “Since launching Project Loon in New Zealand last year, we’ve continued to do research flights to improve the technology. We coordinate with local air traffic control authorities and have a team dedicated to recovering the balloons when they land. We’re currently looking into the situation.”

While Google says that it can control the descent of its balloons and tries to take them down in safe areas, there are times when it has less time to plan it. It does however say that it always coordinates with air traffic control and sends a team to fetch the downed balloon.

Google has said that it will send a team to fetch the parts from Botha.



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