Google Loon takes first commercial flight: 10 facts about the internet balloon

The lifespan of each balloon in Google Loon is only around five months because its plastic degrades.


Alphabet Inc through Google and other subsidiaries have invested heavily over the last decade to make high-speed internet accessible to billions of more people.

Instead of costly rollouts of cell towers or fiber cables, it has considered or tested blimps, satellites, drones and lasers. Other companies are pursuing such technologies. But Alphabet has found balloons to be the most commercially viable option for now. Here are more details on its internet balloon unit Loon, according to the company.

(Also Read: Google’s bet on balloons to beam internet faces crucial first commercial trial)

Founded

The start-up was incubated in Google's research lab in 2011. Loon was spun out as an Alphabet subsidiary in July 2018.

Headquaters

Loon is located in Mountain View, California, where it has an around-the-clock flight operations center.

 Google Loon takes first commercial flight: 10 facts about the internet balloon

A Loon internet balloon, carrying solar-powered mobile networking equipment flies over rugged terrain in New Zealand, in this photo provided June 27, 2019. Courtesy Loon/Handout via Reuters.

Balloon Basics

Balloons are made from a thin plastic and filled with helium. They weigh about 165 pounds including an air pump, and carry an additional 165 pounds or so of solar panels, antennas and other equipment. Each balloon is about as long and wide as a tennis court when fully pressurized in the stratosphere at 60,000 feet.

(Also read: Alphabet Inc's internet providing Project Loon to get a $125 million boost from SoftBank)

Takeoff

Balloons take off from custom launch pads in Nevada and Puerto Rico. The units navigate and change altitude with the help of remote control and algorithms.

Landing

Balloons descend by parachute at about 12 mph, or about the speed of a skydiver.

Regulations

Loon coordinates with air-traffic control officials in all countries where it operates. Onboard transponders share each balloon's location.

The Tech

Networking gear in the balloon connects to a ground station or satellite. Each balloon provides coverage over about 2,000 square miles. But balloons can also relay the internet connection between each other, extending their range without the need for additional ground equipment.

Strengths

Balloons can be positioned above almost any spot on Earth in a couple of weeks or less. Units can be added or removed depending on coverage needs, and their parts can be recycled for other uses.

Challenges

The lifespan of each balloon is only around five months because its plastic degrades. The units are reliant on winds to navigate and the sun to power their networking equipment. Their presence has generated safety concerns from some aviation authorities.

Customers

Telefonica used Loon balloons to supplant cell phone towers knocked offline by natural disasters in 2017 and 2019. Loon partnered with AT&T and T-Mobile to provide coverage in Puerto Rico after the 2017 hurricane. Loon is slated to start tests with Telkom Kenya in coming months.

 


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