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Loon

Expanding Internet connectivity with stratospheric balloons

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Loon balloon flying through mountains in New Zealand.

The challenge

The Internet has transformed the way the world communicates, does business, learns, governs, and exchanges ideas, but not everyone can harness the benefits and advantages it provides. Right now, billions of people across the globe still do not have Internet access. They are completely left out of a digital revolution that could improve their finances, education, and health.

Project Loon is a radical approach to expanding Internet connectivity. Instead of trying to extend the Internet from the ground, Loon takes to the sky via a network of balloons, traveling along the edge of space, to expand Internet connectivity to rural areas, fill coverage gaps, and improve network resilience in the event of a disaster.

1 in every 6 people across the globe live beyond the reach of mobile broadband service. Source: International Telecommunications Union

A cell tower’s coverage area is limited by the height of its antennas. By lifting these antennas up into the stratosphere, we can deliver connectivity over a much larger area.

Design

The Loon balloon

  1. rough conditions

    While in the stratosphere, balloons can encounter 150°C temperature swings, with temperatures reaching as low as -90°C.

  2. scale

    Each tennis court-sized, polyethylene balloon is built to survive for more than 100 days in the stratosphere’s harsh conditions.

  3. altitude control

    Changing the airflow into a smaller inner balloon — the ballonet — causes the balloon to change altitude.

Design

Expanding Internet coverage

  1. Solar Panels

    Solar panels power the equipment during the day and charge an onboard battery for nighttime operation.

  2. flight capsule

    Contains the brains of the system for command and control of the balloon.

  3. parachute

    An onboard parachute allows for a controlled descent and landing.

  4. transceivers

    A high-speed Internet signal is transmitted up to the nearest balloon from our telecommunications partner on the ground. This signal is then relayed across the balloon network and sent back down to users who can access the Internet with their phones and other LTE-enabled devices.

Development

Building a balloon that lasts

The Loon team needed to design a balloon that could last for 100+ days in the stratosphere in order to deliver consistent connectivity. But, how do you test and design something that spends so much time in harsh conditions 20 kilometers in the air?

To see the stratospheric effect on the balloons, the team brings the stratosphere down to earth by testing the balloons in a giant hanger that simulates sub-zero temperatures, high-speed winds, rains, and snow. The team also closely inspects each balloon with everything from mass spectrometers to soap bubbles in order to find the smallest leaks.

Development

Launching the balloons

Launching balloons that have never existed before posed a problem for the team: how do you get a lot of these balloons in the air quickly? To safely and reliably get the balloons up and operational, the team designed and custom-built Autolaunchers — large cranes capable of filling and launching a balloon every 30 minutes into the stratosphere, above airplanes, birds, and the weather.

Development

Launching the balloons

Launching balloons that have never existed before posed a problem for the team: how do you get a lot of these balloons in the air quickly? To safely and reliably get the balloons up and operational, the team designed and custom-built Autolaunchers — large cranes capable of filling and launching a balloon every 30 minutes into the stratosphere, above airplanes, birds, and the weather.

Development

Navigating the stratosphere

Winds in the stratosphere are stratified, which means they’re comprised of layers that travel in different directions and speeds. While one layer may cause the balloon to drift far from its target location, another nearby layer might allow the balloon to blow in the right direction. One of the original insights for the Loon team was to move the balloons up or down into helpful wind patterns to allow the balloons to sail with the winds, rather than fly against them. This “go-with-the-flow” technique allows the balloons to quickly and efficiently get in the right spot.

To identify these helpful wind patterns, Loon uses advanced predictive models to create maps of the skies. The maps allow the team to determine the wind speed and direction at each altitude, time, and location. With these maps in place, the team then developed smart algorithms to help determine the most effective combination of stratospheric paths. With the aid of these algorithms, the balloons can accurately sail the winds over thousands of kilometers to get where they need to go and then manipulate wind paths to remain clustered around those destinations.

X employee working on computer in a lab.
Predictive models help move each balloon into a layer of wind blowing in the right direction. Advanced, smart software algorithms let small groups of balloons cluster over specific regions.
Storage containers and balloon launcher in a field.

Today

Connecting the unconnected

Loon has delivered connectivity to communities where the communications infrastructure has been damaged or wiped out. Loon partnered with Telefonica over many months in 2017 to provide basic Internet connectivity to tens of thousands of people across Peru who were displaced due to extreme rains and flooding. The Loon team also worked closely with AT&T and T-Mobile to bring the Internet to more than 200,00 people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria made landfall.

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