Loon LLC is an Alphabet Inc. subsidiary working on providing Internet access to rural and remote areas. The company uses high-altitude balloons in the stratosphere at an altitude of 18 km (11 mi) to 25 km (16 mi) to create an aerial wireless network with up to 1 Mbps speeds. A reference to the balloons used, Project Loon began as a research and development project by X (formerly Google X), but later spun out into a separate company in July 2018.
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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 into 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.
In 2008, Google considered contracting with or acquiring Space Data Corp, a company that sends balloons carrying small base stations about 20 mi (32 km) up in the air for providing connectivity to truckers and oil companies in the southern United States, but didn't do so.
Unofficial development on the project began in 2011 under incubation in Google X with a series of trial runs in California's Central Valley. The project was officially announced as a Google project on June 14, 2013.
On June 16, 2013, Google began a pilot experiment in New Zealand where about 30 balloons were launched in coordination with the Civil Aviation Authority from the Tekapo area in the South Island. About 50 local users in and around Christchurch and the Canterbury region tested connections to the aerial network using special antennas. After this initial trial, Google plans on sending up 300 balloons around the world at the 40th parallel south that would provide coverage to New Zealand, Australia, Chile, and Argentina. Google hopes to eventually have thousands of balloons flying in the stratosphere.
In May 2014, Google X laboratories director, Astro Teller, announced that, rather than negotiate a section of bandwidth that was free for them worldwide, they would instead become a temporary base station that could be leased by the mobile operators of the country it was crossing over. This was based on work done by the Access Field Development Director, Kai Wulff who was involved in fiber and broadband roll-outs in Emerging Markets from the early 2000s.
On July 28, 2015, Google signed an agreement with officials of Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) – Sri Lanka, to launch the technology on a mass scale. As a result, by March 2016, Sri Lanka will be the second country in the world to get full coverage of internet using LTE, after Vatican City.
In February 2016, Google announced to have achieved a stable laser communication connection between two balloons over a distance of 62 miles (100 km). The connection was stable over many hours and during day and nighttime and reached a data rate of 155 Mbit/s.
On October 6, 2017, Google filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and cleared it the same day, with authorization to start immediately to provide emergency LTE coverage to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The plan allows 30 balloons to relay communication between ground terminals connected to people's handsets. Google will have to install Over The Air (OTA) updates to allow Band 8 operations and at the end of the authorization, a separate OTA update will disable this operation. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced at a press conference on October 8, 2017 the launch of Google's Loon Project on the Caribbean island, following its approval by the FCC.
On October 9, 2017, multiple balloons were spotted near Puerto Rico via Flightradar24. That same month, it was reported that the project had spun off into its own company Loon Inc; however, it was clarified that it still remained as a project at X, until July 2018. On November 9, 2017, it was reported that Google had launched several balloons from Nevada and positioned them over Puerto Rico as part of an effort to bring 100,000 people online.
On July 11, 2018, X, Google's R&D facility, announced that Loon was "graduating", becoming an Alphabet subsidiary in its own right rather than a project of X. As part of its first commercial agreement with Telkom Kenya, Loon has pledged to bring internet access to some of Kenya's most inaccessible regions, to be live in 2019.
On July 23, 2019, Loon announced they had reached one million hours of stratospheric flight between their balloon fleet. In an article written by Loon's CTO Sal Candido via Medium, he explained some of the navigational techniques the autonomous balloons deployed such as tacking, loitering and figure-8's to deliver internet service in the most efficient way possible.
Loon deploys its high-altitude balloon network into the stratosphere, between altitudes of 18 km and 25 km. The company states that the particular altitude and layer of the stratosphere is advantageous for the balloons because of its low wind speeds, which are usually recorded between 5 mph and 20 mph (10 km/h to 30 km/h). The layer is also an area of minimal turbulence. The company says it’s able to model the seasonal, longitudinal and latitudinal wind speed variations, allowing them to adjust the placements of their balloons.
Loon claims it can control the latitudinal and longitudinal position of its high-altitude balloons by changing their altitude. They do this by adjusting the volume and density of internal gas (which is composed of either helium, hydrogen or another lighter-than-air-compound), which allows the balloon’s variable buoyancy system to control the altitude. Additionally, Google has indicated that the balloons are possibly constructed from materials like metalized Mylar, BoPET, or a highly flexible latex or rubber material, like chloroprene.
Initially, the balloons communicated using unlicensed 2.4 and 5.8 GHz ISM bands, and Google claims that the setup allows it to deliver "speeds comparable to 3G" to users, but they then switched to LTE with cellular spectrum by cooperating with local telecommunication operators. It is unclear how technologies that rely on short communications times (low latency pings), such as VoIP, might need to be modified to work in an environment similar to mobile phones where the signal may have to relay through multiple balloons before reaching the wider Internet. Google also experimented with laser communication technology to interconnect balloons at high altitude and achieved a data rate of 155 Mbps over a distance of 62 miles (100 km).
The first person to connect and receive internet access from one of the Loon balloons was Charles Nimmo, a farmer and entrepreneur in Leeston, New Zealand. Nimmo was one of 50 people in the area around Christchurch who agreed to be a pilot tester for Loon. The New Zealand farmer lived in a rural location that was unable to get broadband access to the Internet. The town’s residents used a satellite Internet service in 2009, but found that the service could reach costs of up to $1000 per month.
Locals participating in the testing were not made aware of the details, other than that it had potential ability to deliver Internet connectivity, but allowed project workers to attach a basketball-sized receiver resembling a giant bright-red party balloon to an outside wall of their property in order to connect to the network.
The technology designed in the project could allow countries to avoid using expensive fiber cable that would have to be installed underground to allow users to connect to the Internet. Alphabet feels this will greatly increase Internet usage in developing countries in regions such as Africa and Southeast Asia that can't afford to lay underground fiber cable.
The balloon envelopes used in the project are designed and made by Raven Aerostar, and are based on the Raven Aerostar Super Pressure Balloon. The balloons are composed of polyethylene plastic about 0.076 mm (0.0030 in) thick. The balloons are superpressure balloons filled with helium, standing 15 m (49 ft) across and 12 m (39 ft) tall when fully inflated. They carry a custom air pump system dubbed the "Croce" that pumps in or releases air to ballast the balloon and control its altitude. A small box weighing 10 kg (22 lb) containing each balloon's electronic equipment hangs underneath the inflated envelope. This box contains circuit boards that control the system, radio antennas and a Ubiquiti Networks 'Rocket M2' to communicate with other balloons and with Internet antennas on the ground, and batteries to store solar power so the balloons can operate during the night. Each balloon's electronics are powered by an array of solar panels that sit between the envelope and the hardware. In full sun, the panels produce 100 watts of power, which is sufficient to keep the unit running while also charging a battery for use at night. A parachute, called Raven Aerostar Payload Recovery Parachute, is attached to the top of the envelope allows for a controlled descent, landing and payload recovery when a balloon is ready to be taken out of service. In the case of an unexpected failure, the parachute deploys automatically. When taken out of service, the balloon is guided to an easily reached location, and the helium is vented into the atmosphere. The balloons typically have a maximum life of about 100 days, although Google claims that its tweaked design can enable them to stay aloft for closer to 200 days.
The prototype ground stations use a Ubiquiti Networks 'Rocket M5' radio and a custom patch antenna to connect to the balloons at a height of 20 km (12 mi). Some reports have called Google's project the Google Balloon Internet.
- On May 29, 2014, a Loon balloon crashed into power lines in Washington, United States.
- On June 20, 2014, New Zealand officials briefly scrambled emergency services personnel when a Loon balloon came down.
- In November 2014, a South African farmer found a crashed Loon balloon in the Karoo desert between Strydenburg and Britstown.
- On April 23, 2015, a Loon balloon crashed in a field near Bragg City, Missouri.
- On September 12, 2015, a Loon balloon crashed in the front lawn of a residence on Rancho Hills, Chino Hills, California.
- On February 17, 2016, a Loon balloon crashed in the tea-growing region of Gampola, Sri Lanka while carrying out tests.
- On April 7, 2016, a Loon balloon landed on a farm in Dundee, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
- On April 22, 2016, a Loon balloon crashed in a field in the Ñeembucú Department, Paraguay.
- On August 22, 2016, a Loon balloon landed on a ranch in Formosa, Argentina about 40 km. West of the Capital of Formosa.
- On August 26, 2016, a Loon balloon landed northwest of Madison, South Dakota.
- On January 9, 2017, a Loon Balloon crashed in Sieyic, near Changuinola, Bocas del Toro province, Panama.
- On January 8, 2017 and January 10, 2017, two Loon Balloons landed at 10 km E of Cerro Chato & 40 km NNW of Mariscala, Uruguay.
- On February 17, 2017 a Loon Balloon crashed in Buriti dos Montes, Brazil.
- On March 14, 2017, a Loon Balloon crashed in San Luis, Tolima, Colombia.
- On March 19, 2017, a Loon Balloon crashed in Tacuarembó, Uruguay.
- On August 9, 2017, a Loon Balloon crashed in a reedbed in Olmos, Lambayeque, Peru.
- On December 30, 2017, a Loon Balloon crashed in Nthambiro, Igembe Central, Meru County, Kenya.
Loon has generally been well received, although Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project developers and astronomers have raised concerns that the lower of the two ISM bands that Loon uses (2.4 GHz) will interfere with the mid-band frequency range (0.5 GHz–3 GHz) used in the SKA project.
Alphabet has not yet specified the costs of this project.
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58s into video: We call this air control system "Croce" because our co-worker lead saw the shape of our impeller housing was bottle shaped and started singing "Time in a Bottle" [by] Jim Croce
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I've just been down to talk to the folks from Google, who are here in Christchurch, New Zealand, launching their pilot for Loon. One engineer told me "we use the Ubiquiti Rocket M2 for transceiving, and the M5 for groundstation uplink". He described the downwards-pointing antenna on the ballon, which sounded to me like a UniFi polar map, but on a bigger scale. They have modified the firmware to only work with other modified firmware Rockets.
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- Cayó un globo de Google en un campo de las modelos Maglietti
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