Google Seeks Testers For Balloon-Based Internet


Google wants you, or more specifically Google’s Project Loon wants people who live in California’s Central Valley and who would be willing to let Google install some Loon equipment on their property.

The search engine giant wants help testing out the fledgling Internet service that aims to bring Internet access to remote users around the world.

Testers Wanted

Internet, web © Peshkova Shutterstock 2012After hearing from residents around the United States and the world who would like to get involved in the project, Google announced in an 20 August post on the Project Loon Google+ page that it’s looking for Loon testers.

“Thanks to those of you who have generously offered to help us with our research flights in California’s Central Valley,” said the post. “We’d like to take you up on it!”

The nuts and bolts for the project are simple, according to the post. “Project Loon is looking for folks in the area who are willing to have a Loon Internet antenna installed on their house or small business building to help test the strength of the Loon Internet connection. When balloons fly overhead, the Loon Internet antennas will generate traffic that will load-test our service.”

Residents who hoped to volunteer for the testing were asked to fill out a brief survey on the page so that Google could contact them. As of 22 August, the survey form appears to be removed from the site.

Project Loon is using a series of high-altitude balloons to build a high-speed Internet network that could be used to bring affordable Internet service to far-flung locations around the world for the first time, according to Google. The experiment is being touted as a high-tech way to create Internet connections for two-thirds of the people in the world who currently don’t have Internet access due to high costs and the difficulty of stringing connections in rural and far-flung parts of the world.

The Loon concepts were first tested in June 2013 in an experimental pilot project in Christchurch and Canterbury in New Zealand, where 50 volunteer testers worked to connect with the balloons high above, according to Google. The New Zealand pilot tests showed that the concept could work and confirmed that balloon-powered Internet may be a viable approach, so Google is now doing testing in California to try to replicate and grow that initial success.

Aircraft Avoidance

The Central Valley, California, location was selected for the first tests in the United States because it is a remote area where Google can conduct its balloon experiments away from people and aircraft. The Central Valley is a few hours’ drive from Google’s Mountain View headquarters and is less populated than the coast and located well enough away from busy air traffic around the San Francisco Bay area’s three major airports.

The testing in California will research the performance of various aspects of the Loon technology, including radio performance, parachute deployment, the solar array, the superpressure envelope around the balloons and more, according to Google. To avoid interference, the balloons used during the pilot communicate with special Internet antennas on the ground at very low power.

Essentially, Google describes Project Loon as “balloon-powered Internet for everyone.” The balloons will float in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes and the weather, and can be “steered by rising or descending to an altitude with winds moving in the desired direction,” according to Google. “People connect to the balloon network using a special Internet antenna attached to their building. The signal bounces from balloon to balloon, then to the global Internet back on Earth.”

Google sign sculptureUp Up And Away

The balloons themselves are made of very thin plastic that’s about 3 mil thick, according to Google. The balloon plastic is a superpressure vessel, which means its shape stays constant and doesn’t expand like a Mylar party balloon as more gas is placed inside. The balloons are 15m in diameter when fully inflated (the length of a small, light aircraft), but they do not inflate until they’ve reached float altitude in the stratosphere, according to Google.

Wind data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is presently used to predict potential flight pathways for the balloons.

In March, Google began a related trial project in South Africa to help bring Internet access to more residents in that developing nation using unused parts of the television spectrum called “white spaces.” The South Africa project involves a trial with 10 schools in the Cape Town area that were slated to receive wireless broadband over a white space network. Google began a white space trial in the United States in 2010 after two years of delays following its initial 2008 announcement of the effort.

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Originally published on eWeek.

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