GoogleX Solar-powered balloons - the future of the internet?

Located less than a mile from the Google headquarters in California, is the home of GoogleX, a semi-secret research facility where exciting new projects - such as self-driving cars and flying vehicles to deliver products - are being developed. One product being developed is Project Loon – a high altitude balloon that can provide internet access to remote and rural parts of the world.

Google are aiming to launch a fleet of these balloons which will fly through the stratosphere, about 20km above the earth. The wind speeds are low at this level and the turbulence is minimal. These balloons, which are 15m wide by 12m high when inflated, contain wireless routers and will reside above planes and weather conditions. Users of the balloon network will have an internet antennae. The network will transmit signals from balloon to balloon and then to a ground-based station, linking to the global internet at around 500 megabits data per second. Currently the balloons can provide coverage to an area approximately 80 km in diameter and can communicate with balloons over 100 km away.

The tightly sealed balloon envelope is a very thin sheet – less than 0.1mm - of polyethylene plastic filled with helium. An array of monocrystalline solar panels are located below the envelope, divided into 2 sections facing in opposite directions, allowing energy capture as the balloon spins. In full sunshine the balloons produce 100 watts of power. Batteries store the excess energy generated during the day, ensuring that the balloons function 24 hours a day. The balloon is taken out of action after about 100 days and it releases gas to provide a controlled descent. For extra safety a parachute is attached to the top of the balloon, to allow a safe landing in the event that it is required.

Google hopes to eventually have thousands of balloons flying in the stratosphere. Since they began testing in 2013, they have flown 1000 balloons including one that circumnavigated the world 19 times. And in October they announced that Project Loon will be working in partnership with Indonesia’s 3 largest mobile network operators to test the balloons in 2016. This has the potential to provide internet to many of the two thirds of Indonesians that are currently not on the internet. 

As well as Google’s advances, another major company – Facebook – is developing solar-powered drones to provide internet to the world, although this venture is at an earlier stage of development. But together, these solar-powered devices promise to provide world-wide internet without the need for fibre optic cable or electronic communication sites, and prevent disruption to internet services in the event of a natural disaster.