Google Launch: First Balloons to Beam the Internet Into Your Home – Austin Visuals 3D Animation Studio Reports
Here at Austin Visuals 3D Animation Studio, we like telling you about new and cool technology. How would you like to have the Internet beamed in to your house from a balloon floating 12 miles above you, in the stratosphere? In Christchurch, New Zealand, Google released translucent balloons were reminiscent of jellyfish. They quickly hardened into shiny balls as they rose into the blue skies over Lake Tekapo, in the heart of New Zealand’s South Island. And thus they pass the first big test of a lofty goal — to get the entire planet online.
Google calls it Project Look, perhaps in recognition of how absurd the idea sounds. But they’ve seen fit to invest 18 months of work into it. Developed in the secretive X lab (that is also working on robot-driven card and web-surfing eyeglasses), the flimsy floating pumpkins beam the Internet down to Earth as they float on past.
The balloons are still in their experimental stage. These were the first of thousands that Google eventually hope to launch 12 miles into the stratosphere. The purpose? Google wants to bridge the digital divide between the world’s estimated 4.8 billion unwired people and the 2.2 billion that do have nearly constant Internet access.
Assuming this rollout is successful, it might allow countries to skip over the expense and time investment of laying fiber cable, dramatically increasing Internet penetration in remote places such as Africa and Southeast Asia.
“It’s a huge moonshot. A really big goal to go after,” said project leader Mike Cassidy. “The power of the Internet is probably one of the most transformative technologies of our time.”
A farmer and entrepreneur in the small town of Leeston, named Charles Nimmo, was the first person to get Google Balloon Internet access. He found the experience somewhat bemusing. One of 50 people, he had signed up as a tester for a project so secret, no-one would explain what was happening. The volunteers’ homes were visited by technicians who attached giant Google map pins to the outside of their homes – bright red receivers the size of basketballs.
Nimmo enjoyed use of the Internet for about 15 minutes before the balloon transmitting it sailed out of range. His first stop on the Web? He checked the weather, as he wanted to find out if it was an optimal time for removing the wool around his sheep’s rear ends, a procedure called “crutching.”
Many rural folks, even in developed countries, can’t get broadband access. Nimmo is one of these. He gave up on dial-up four years ago, in the hopes that satellite Internet service would work. But then he’s found himself with bills that sometimes go over $1,000 in a single month.
Of the Google Balloon Internet experience, Nimmo said “It’s been weird, but it’s been exciting to be part of something new.”
This particular application is new, yes. But people have used balloons for communication, entertainment and transportation for centuries. Recently, both the military and aeronautical researchers have use balloons – albeit tethered ones – to beam Internet signals back to bases on Earth.
On the other hand, Google’s balloons fly free and out of eyesight. They gather power from solar panels the size of card tables that dangle below them. In just four hours, these panels gather enough charge to power them for a full day as they use the prevailing winds to sail around the globe. 12 miles below, ground stations with Internet capabilities bounce signals up to the balloons. These ground stations are spaced about 60 miles apart.
Each balloon would provide Internet service for an area about 780 square miles. That’s twice the area of New York City. Terrain would not be a challenge; they could stream Internet into Afghanistan’s steep and winding Khyber Pass, or even Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon. Here the World Bank estimates only about four out of every 100 people are online.
There are plenty of caveats, though. There’s a requirement that anyone using this service would need a receiver plugged in to their computer in order to get the signal. Google is not talking money as of yet, though they are striving to make both the balloons and the other hardware as inexpensive as possible. Overall, though, the cost will still be dramatically less than laying cables.
Google will not have to go through the tedious regulatory processes required for Internet providers using wireless communication networks or satellites, since the balloon signals will travel in the unlicensed spectrum. Google did work with New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority on the trial in that country, which was chosen in part because of its remote location. Cassidy said that in the next phase of the trial, they hope to get up to 300 balloons forming a ring on the 40th parallel, south from New Zealand. This would cover parts of Australia, Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and Chile.
Founding Project Loon is Richard DeVaul, an MIT trained scientist who also helped develop Google Glass, or camera-equipped eyeglasses with a tiny computer display that responds to voice commands. “It’s a very fundamentally democratic thing that what links everyone together is the sky and the winds,” says DeVaul. Hundreds of balloons made of plastic films similar to grocery bags have been built thus far. To do this, Google engineers studied balloon science from Jet Propulsion Lab, NASA and the Defense Department.
DeVaul says the balloons won’t interfere with aircraft because they fly well below satellites yet twice as high as airplanes. He also minimized concerns about surveillance, emphatically stating they would not carry cameras or other extraneous equipment. The balloons would be replaced periodically upon being guided to certain collection points. In case of equipment failure, a parachute would automatically deploy.
More widespread Internet connectivity can do wonders for remote populations. Disease outbreaks were solved by African farmers who searched the Web in pilot projects, while in Bangladesh “online schools” bring teachers from Dhaka to children in remote classrooms through large screens and video conferencing. Conceivably, the project can fast-forward many developing nations into the digital age, say many experts. This has the potential to positively impact far more people than either of Google X lab’s first two projects: The aforementioned glasses and a fleet of robot-driven cars that have already logged accident-free miles numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
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