Project Loon can now predict weather systems

More than half of the world’s population is still without Internet access. Project Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to extend Internet connectivity to people in rural and remote areas worldwide.

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Project Loon is a research and development project being developed by X (formerly Google X) with the mission of providing Internet access to rural and remote areas. The project uses high-altitude balloons placed in the stratosphere at an altitude of about 18 km (11 mi) to create an aerial wireless network with up to 4G-LTE speeds. It was named Project Loon, since even Google itself found the idea of providing Internet access to the remaining 5 billion population unprecedented and “crazy.”

The balloons are maneuvered by adjusting their altitude in the stratosphere to float to a wind layer after identifying the wind layer with the desired speed and direction using wind data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Users of the service connect to the balloon network using a special Internet antenna attached to their building. The signal travels through the balloon network from balloon to balloon, then to a ground-based station connected to an Internet service provider (ISP), then onto the global Internet. The system aims to bring Internet access to remote and rural areas poorly served by existing provisions, and to improve communication during natural disasters to affected regions. Key people involved in the project include Rich DeVaul, chief technical architect, who is also an expert on wearable technology; Mike Cassidy, a project leader; and Cyrus Behroozi, a networking and telecommunication lead.

The balloons use patch antennas – which are directional antennas – to transmit signals to ground stations or LTE users. Some smartphones with Google SIM cards can use Google Internet services. The whole infrastructure is based on LTE; the eNodeB component (the equivalent of the “base station” that talks directly to handsets) is carried in the balloon.

Researchers at Google have moved a step closer to rolling out a network of huge balloons to provide Internet connectivity to billions of people around the world, particularly those in difficult-to-reach rural areas.

The Project Loon team, part of the company’s X research lab, said it can now use machine learning to predict weather systems.

The advance means Google has much more control over where its balloons reach, making it possible to focus on a specific region, rather than circumnavigating the globe.

“We can now run an experiment and try to give service in a particular place in the world with ten, twenty or thirty balloons,” rather than the hundreds needed previously, the company said.

“Real users” will be able to make use of the system in the “coming months”, however, the company did not specify where the initial roll-out would take place.

The company has experimented with beaming down connectivity from a network of huge, tennis-court sized balloons rather than undertaking huge construction projects to replicate connectivity networks in the developed world.

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