Google’s balloon-based internet for everyone strategy – Project Loon – continues to build momentum with the news that the Indian government has cleared the project for testing over its skies.
Project Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters.
As much as two-thirds of the world’s population does not yet have Internet access, Google explains. The company is seeking to address this with a network of internet-beaming balloons in the atmosphere that it hopes will provide a continuous data service to people living below their path.
Project Loon’s balloons – filled with lighter than air helium – float in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes and the weather. The balloons’ envelopes are made from sheets of polyethylene plastic that measure 15m wide by 12m tall when fully inflated.
In the stratosphere, there are many layers of wind, and each layer of wind varies in direction and speed. Loon balloons go where they’re needed by rising or descending into a layer of wind blowing in the desired direction of travel. “By partnering with Telecommunications companies to share cellular spectrum we’ve enabled people to connect to the balloon network directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices. The signal is then passed across the balloon network and back down to the global Internet on Earth,” Google explains.
When a balloon is ready to be taken out of service, the helium gas is released from the envelope to bring the balloon down to Earth in a controlled descent. In the unlikely event that a balloon drops too quickly, a parachute attached to the top of the envelope is deployed.
Project Loon began in June 2013 with an experimental pilot in New Zealand, where a small group of Project Loon pioneers tested Loon technology. The results of the pilot test, as well as subsequent tests in New Zealand, California’s Central Valley and in Northeast Brazil, are being used to improve the technology in preparation for the next stages of the project.
Google has recently announced further development and expansion of the project and announced in October (2015) that the top three mobile network operators in Indonesia will begin testing Project Loon balloon-powered Internet next year (2016). Sri Lanka is also understood to have previously signed an agreement to be another participant in the project.
India is now one of the latest countries to clear the deployment of Project Loon balloons over its skies. With a view to providing internet connections in its rural areas, the Indian government has cleared Project Loon on a trial basis.
India’s internet usage has been growing faster than expected; as per recent studies, up to 402 million people use the internet out of the total population of 1.2 billion. With this in mind, Google wants to provide internet connections to rural areas and is interested in partnering with government-owned telecom operator Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) to source the 4G long-term evolution (LTE) spectrum.
The government has approved testing of the project and formed a committee under chairmanship of the Secretary of the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DEITY) to work on it. Google will float the balloons in the stratosphere that will act as floating mobile towers, with each balloon covering a ground area of roughly 40km in diameter. Google will then beam LTE signals in the 2.6GHz spectrum band of BSNL and those having 4G LTE-enabled devices will be able to access the internet from the areas covered by Project Loon.
Project Loon is not the first commercial application to make use of helium’s buoyant properties, with the gas perhaps most prominently known in the public domain for its use in party balloons. The airships industry is also one of the most renowned and discussed future applications of helium.
The MRI business is by far the biggest application for helium overall; an estimated 25% of global demand alone comes from the manufacture and operation of MRI scanners, which use liquid helium to cool the superconducting magnets that generate high resolution images of the human body. Electronics, aerospace applications, leak testing, welding and optical fibre manufacturing are other important helium applications.
The commercial development of airships could represent a significant demand driver for the global helium business, but the lift-off for this industry has been beset by a number of false dawns to date.
Google’s Project Loon is perhaps unlikely to create such demand for helium, gasworld understands, though its success could herald greater proliferation of such concepts in the future and a long-term demand driver around the world, particularly as emerging economies develop.