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Google’s Project Loon: The gamble that’s so crazy it might work

A balloon is shown over a remote area in New Zealand. (Google/Reuters)

Google’s Project Loon, in which high-altitude balloons circle the globe using wind currents and solar power to provide WiFi connectivity to remote locations in developing markets, officially launched this past week, with balloons headed out around the world from a remote location in New Zealand. If you’re so inclined, there’s even a way to follow along online in real-time as winds blow these balloons at 25 mph along the 40th parallel in the Southern Hemisphere.

At first glance, of course, Project Loon has to be one of the craziest ideas we’ve ever heard from Google. Most commercial airplanes fly at 30,000 feet (approximately 10 kilometers) above the earth’s surface, but these new balloons will fly in the stratosphere, at 20 kilometers above the earth’s surface. If you want to really understand how high up the stratosphere is, rewatch the amazing space jump of Felix Baumgartner, who jumped more than 128,000 feet from the edge of outer space in 2012.

In a beta test conducted last year, some of Google’s high-altitude balloons appear to have gone badly off course and crashed into the ocean, resulting in much griping and dismay about ocean junk floating off the coast of New Zealand. Bill Gates has even gone on the record, implying that there are far better things that Google could be doing with its time and money.

But that’s exactly the point – Project Loon is one of those “moon shot” projects from Google X, the company’s super-stealthy research and development lab where ideas such as Google Glass and the autonomous driving car have been cooked up. The whole point of any Google X project is that it should result in a massive, disruptive change in a way that wouldn’t be typically approved by any bureaucratic decision-maker at a conventional company solely focused on the bottom line.

Bringing Internet connectivity to hundreds of millions — if not billions — of the world’s unconnected masses certainly qualifies as one of those disruptive, world-changing ideas.  Imagine uninterrupted bands of wireless connectivity wrapping around the entire circumference of the earth. The same concept — of rigging up solar-powered, WiFi enabled balloons to fly at 20 kilometers above the earth’s surface as part of a roving aerial network – can actually be applied to just about any out-of-the-way spot that doesn’t have Internet connectivity. That extends to earthquake zones or war zones, as much as it does to areas along the 40th parallel. Project Loon is essentially “Internet-in-a-box” that will be available globally perhaps as early as 2020.

Which is perhaps why Facebook is also pursuing a similarly wacky strategy to bring Internet connectivity to the world’s masses. The latest vision from Mark Zuckerberg apparently calls for high-altitude, solar-powered drones to circle 65,000 feet above developing nations in order to create always-on Internet connections. Unlike Google’s high-altitude balloons, which have a lifespan of approximately 100 days, Facebook’s drones would have a lifespan of nearly 5 years. By some estimates, the technology behind Facebook’s Internet-beaming drones would be commercially available by 2015.

Google’s Project Loon is an innovation project that has only been made possible in the past five years, due to rapid increases in computing power. There are entire teams of MIT-educated researchers from a wide variety of engineering and computing disciplines working to make Project Loon a reality. It requires an incredible amount of technological sophistication to keep an aerial network of balloons afloat along a stable path, and then enable those balloons to relay WiFi signals to receivers on homes in out-of-the-way regions. Think how much effort it takes to keep a simple kite afloat on a windy day — now imagine that kite 20 kilometers above you, connected to a lot of other wayward kites.

In short, balloon scientists are the new rocket scientists. Google’s balloon scientists are bringing to life a concept that wouldn’t have been possible – or imaginable – even a few years ago. And that’s attracted the attention of other researchers and scientists, eager to use the data from Google’s balloons for other projects. For example, some climate scientists would like the chance to study the earth’s stratosphere for clues about global climate change. Other technologists are imagining a future of adventure travel in the stratosphere. Just imagine if Google’s Project Loon started out as a way to bring Internet connectivity to billions of the world’s masses and ended up divining the secrets to global warming or creating entirely new forms of balloon-powered transportation to the stratosphere. We may never think of balloons as children’s toys ever again.