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From Giant Freezer to Upper Atmosphere: Google’s Giant Internet Balloons

Google has been making huge moves behind the scenes recently. Last year, they were buying up robotics and engineering companies like Nest Labs and Boston Dynamics for their own reasons, leaving us to wonder what the internet juggernaut was going to do next.

Well, now we have a glimpse of what Google wants to do: they want to deliver the internet to the world—using balloons! It’s called Project Loon, and Google has been working on it since the summer of 2013. The plan is to deliver Internet service from enormous balloons floating in the stratosphere, providing internet access around the world.

A couple weeks ago, the project tested out their giant balloons at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida for a very special test. That’s because Eglin is home to the McKinley Climatic Laboratory, a 55,000-square-foot hangar where the Air Force simulates extreme conditions like sub-zero temperatures, high-speed winds, rain, and snow as it tests fighter jets, bombers, helicopters, and more. Inside McKinley, Google is testing its balloons, exposing them to the kind of weather they’ll experience floating about 20 miles above the globe.

“It’s [basically] a giant freezer in Florida,” says Mahesh Krishnaswamy, one of the project’s leads. Krishnaswamy runs what he calls “The Leak Squad,” who are tasked with finding even the tiniest leaks on the balloons’ polyethylene material. Thanks to Krishnaswamy and his team, the balloons are capable of staying up in the atmosphere for more than 100 days!

These tests are another step in the rapid evolution of the unexpected and surprisingly effective Project Loon. Google can keep its balloons aloft for months—one flew for 187 days. Engineers have also navigated the balloons within 500 meters of a target from 20,000 kilometers away, and Google can now send wireless signals between the balloons, daisy-chaining an Internet connection across the sky. The company estimates that, using these balloons, it can send an Internet signal from a telecom base station to phone users hundreds of kilometers away (about twice the width of the state of California).

According to Wired.com, the project is part of wider effort to create technologies capable of delivering Internet access to remote corners of the world. Even Facebook and SpaceX are getting in on the action. The hope is that these systems can reach developing countries with greater ease and lower cost than traditional tech like wirelines and cell towers.

About two-thirds of the world’s population is not online, and Google wants to change that. It’s interested in covering the parts of Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia that lack Internet access (and allowing them access to Google!).

The value of this project shouldn’t be underestimated. Google is going to extreme lengths in its effort to extend the reach of the net. It’s building balloons and cranes. It’s trying to predict the weather. And it’s camping out in an Air Force freezer, at sub-zero temperatures! That’s gotta be worth something, right?

Photo credit: Google via Wired

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