We call it the cloud and cloud computing—the use of servers distributed across the world to backup documents and data, host websites, and all manner of information. But now Google is taking WiFi sky high, actually using balloons to keep WiFi antennas aloft and solar panels to power the antennas. The Internet giant has launched a series of these prototype arial Internet stations 12 miles high in New Zealand to help connect people, primarily farmers in remote locations, to the Internet.
While Google’s Project Loon may sound like a Jules Verne-inspired plot, it’s not the first company to come up with the idea of putting a network in the sky—or even the first to put solar in the sky. AeroVironment, Inc., often working with NASA, began flying an unmanned, PV-powered aircraft in 1981. And Solar Impulse, in as much of a Jules Verne idea, is currently flying the first manned, purely PV powered plane across the U.S., before it attempts a world-wide circumnavigation in the near future.
In terms of an aloft, solar-powered network, The Pirate Bay beat Google to the punch. Last year the site announced its Low Orbit Server Stations (LOSS) project, an effort to keep its file-sharing links and related torrent files available and free from copyright violations by keeping them in the air—where laws don’t apply. Supposedly, that effort considered launching quadcopters or drones to keep aloft its servers, which would use tiny Pi computers and be capable of transmitting at 100 megabytes a second. And whether or not The Pirate Bay is now operating a fleet of flying servers is unknown.
Google’s balloons on the other hand, are firstly much less controversial, and secondly, confirmedly deployed. On June 14, Google confirmed that it launched 30 balloons, allowing the 50-person test group in New Zealand’s Canterbury region to access 3G-like Internet from the sky.
Google is looking at the unique technology as a way to connect potentially billions of people to the Web, much more inexpensively than deploying cable or telephone lines throughout the world. “There are many terrestrial challenges to Internet connectivity—jungles, archipelagos, mountains,” Google said in launching the program. “There are also major cost challenges. Right now, for example, in most of the countries in the southern hemisphere, the cost of an Internet connection is more than a month’s income,” the company said.
“We believe that it might actually be possible to build a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on the stratospheric winds, that provides Internet access to the earth below,” Google said. Such a network faces its own series of issues, however, including airplanes, winds, and other issues—perhaps meteor storms, for instance.
To get around the plane issue, Google said it deployed the balloons twice as high as commercial airlines fly—and to ensure they’re deployed away from major airline routes. To combat the issue of winds, the company is developing algorithms that would allow the balloons to rise or fall to catch winds that will help keep them remain relatively in place for weeks at a time.