Why Project Loon is the Most Important Thing Happening at Google

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Google has a lot of interesting and groundbreaking projects in the pipeline—driverless cars, Google Glass, Google Fiber, and even the ones that spawn from their creepy obsession with human immortality. Many of these come from a mysterious branch of the company known as Google X and probably will never see the light of day. However, Project Loon just might be the most important project going on over in Mountain View.

Project Loon’s tagline is “balloon-powered internet for everyone”—and when they say everyone, they really mean everyone. As noted in the video, Google’s aim with Project Loon is to deliver high-speed internet to the estimated 60% of the world’s population who don’t currently have access to it. But according to Google, they don’t just want a bunch of new Google+ users—they believe in the power that the internet brings to those who don’t have access to things like medical information, higher education, and worldwide communication.

Project Loon is fittingly dubbed because it enlists balloons to deliver Internet access to the world’s most remote areas. It seeks to level the digital playing field, particularly to make information available affordably to areas of the world without the ability to seek medical knowledge, establish local businesses online and pursue online education. But how? These balloons are a special technology that floats up in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes fly. “Loon balloons” get around like with the aid of the wind, which really thrives in the stratosphere.

These different directions and speeds of wind guide the balloons, whether up or down, and people down below can connect to a balloon network through a special Internet antenna attached to whatever structure they’re in (home, workplace, coffee shop). “The signal bounces from this antenna up to the balloon network, and then down to the global Internet on Earth,” according to Google Loon’s official website.

That’s great and all, but is it fast Internet? Google says that each balloon, which can float for about 100 days in the stratosphere, is capable of establishing an Internet connection “to a ground area about 40 km in diameter at speeds comparable to 3G.” Apparently, the balloons can communicate with each other and on-the-ground Google folks with their installed radio antennas. These balloons look remarkably like actual balloons, Google says, because their electronic functions are all stored in one box underneath the inflated part—almost like the basket you would see on a hot air balloon.

What’s more, the Loon balloons seem to a much more environmentally friendly way of getting internet access out to people. Outfitted with solar panels, which produce 100 Watts of power in full sun, the balloons run on solar power during the day and a battery at night.

PC World says Google may be hanging out in the Nevada desert with Loon balloons these days. After an initial trial in New Zealand, Martyn Williams reported that Google was looking to tap into LTE technology with the approval of the FCC. This is significant because the tests, which are apparently being done in northern Nevada, fall in “two chunks of radio spectrum that are used as a pair for 4G LTE services,” Williams wrote. What’s clear is that the tests are a secret. “The technology is under development and highly sensitive and confidential in nature,” Google wrote to the FCC. “The release of such information would provide valuable insight into Google’s technology innovations and potential business plans and strategies.”

But Google isn’t just sitting on their hands with Project Loon. On April 14, Google extended the shelf life of this dream by acquiring a drone startup company called Titan Aerospace. As with every bizarre Google acquisition of late, a couple of important questions need to be asked: What do they do and what does Google want from them?

Titan Aerospace is an innovative company—an understandable fit for Google, always looking for ways to stay a step ahead of its competitors. Titan Aerospace uses its high-altitude drone technologies to “help people,” they say, both through providing Web connections and “monitoring environmental damage like oil spills and deforestation.” According to TechCrunch, Google plans to use the research, data, and expertise from the folks working with Titan drones, which reportedly fly up to 65,000 feet for up to three a years, to help make up for the two-thirds of the globe’s population without Internet access.

In doing so, Google is partnering with people who know about the risks, costs and opportunities of dealing with unmanned aerial objects. According to the writer from TechCrunch, “The use of drones could conceivably make a network of Internet-providing automatons even better at globe-trotting, with a higher degree of control and ability to react to changing conditions. Some kind of hybrid system might also be in the pipeline that marries both technologies.” However, Google wasn’t the only company interested in Titan Aerospace.

TechCrunch also reported in March that Facebook was expressing some serious interest in acquiring Titan Aerospace for about $60 million, but then Mark Zuckerberg and company announced their purchase of UK-based Ascenta for an undisclosed amount. The drone maker is helping sponsor Facebook’s new Connectivity Lab, which Zuckerberg said they would use to beam the World Wide Web to low-income countries through air and space technologies.

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The Connectivity Lab is part of the bigger Internet.org project, hoping to bring Internet to 5 billion people. Whether its advertising dollars or new ventures, Facebook and Google are constantly competing. Now, their aerial projects (Project Loon and Connectivity Lab) may make the competition a bit more interesting. It’s easy to look at what Facebook and Google are doing through Internet.org and see nothing but greedy capitalism at work. After all, Google wants nothing more than to gain more customers of the products, more users of their services, and ultimately more eyeballs for advertisers.

But unlike Google’s other initiatives, whether it’s a nice new Nexus smartphone or the next big thing in wearable technology, Project Loon has the potential to greatly change how 60% of the world lives. These are kind of changes that have a positive effect that may never fully be able to calculated—that is, if Google can really do what they say they can. Either way, at this point it’s hard not to cheer them on.

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