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Why Google and Facebook need balloons, drones and rockets

Mike Elgan | Dec. 8, 2014
Google and Facebook are hatching schemes (that some people call crazy) to bring to the majority of people what we in the privileged minority enjoy every day — the ability to get online.

Google's Project Loon

For example, Google has undertaken an initiative called Project Loon through which it intends to use balloons and other interesting technologies to relay Internet connectivity to and from remote areas that are separated from major population centers by long distances or rugged terrain. Google officially unveiled Project Loon in June 2013.

One of the interesting technologies included in Project Loon is solar power. The balloons get their electricity from the sun, which is a great idea because they fly in the stratosphere (more than 12 miles high) — above the clouds. It's always sunny up there.

Another is algorithmic control. Software moves the balloons up or down to catch wind currents based on their direction to more or less keep the balloons in one area. At that altitude, wind speeds can reach 100 mph, and the software has to cope with those speeds and changes in direction in real time.

A third technology used in Project Loon is mesh networking, which sends Internet packets from balloon to balloon and zaps data to and from homes and businesses below that have specially built antennas on their roofs.

Google's most recent test of Project Loon is taking place in Australia, where the company is partnering with Australian telecom Telstra. It's launching 20 balloons over Queensland this month. There are also tests underway in New Zealand, California's Central Valley and northeast Brazil.

There are about 75 Loon balloons in the air right now. By next year, Google intends to form a continuous, 50-mile-wide ring of Loon coverage that circles the Southern Hemisphere.

The purpose of these tests is partly to demonstrate Project Loon to the telecommunications companies that may partner with Google on the management of local programs.

Google also announced recently that it's already reaching its goal of keeping balloons aloft for around 100 days — in fact, one of its balloons remained airborne for 134 days. Some experts thought that goal was unachievable, especially since NASA balloons typically remain in the air for only about 60 days at a time.

Another Google plan to zap Internet access to remote places involves the use of unmanned airplanes — drones.

Back in April, the company bought Titan Aerospace, a startup that makes solar-powered drones. Titan will continue to operate independently of Google, but it will collaborate with Google on Google Maps and Project Loon.

Google hasn't talked a lot about how it will use drones. But Facebook has.

Facebook's Internet.org

In August 2013, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched an organization called Internet.org, whose stated goal is to connect everyone in the world to the Internet. Its mission statement is: "No one should have to choose between access to the Internet and food or medicine."

 

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