Google revealed top-secret plans Saturday to send balloons to the edge of space with the lofty aim of bringing Internet to the two-thirds of the global population currently without web access.
Scientists from the technology giant released up to 30 helium-filled test balloons flying 20 kilometres (12.4 miles) above Christchurch in New Zealand, carrying antennae linked to ground base stations.
While still in the early stages, “Project Loon” hopes eventually to launch thousands of balloons to provide Internet to remote parts of the world, allowing more than four billion people with no access to get online.
“Project Loon is an experimental technology for balloon-powered Internet access,” Google said in a statement.
“Balloons, carried by the wind at altitudes twice as high as commercial planes, can beam Internet access to the ground at speeds similar to today’s 3G networks or faster.
“It is very early days, but we think a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on the stratospheric winds, might be a way to provide affordable Internet access to rural, remote, and undeserved areas down on earth below, or help after disasters, when existing communication infrastructure is affected.”
It works by ground stations connecting to the local Internet infrastructure and beaming signals to the balloons, which are self-powered by solar panels.
The balloons are then able to communicate with each other, forming a mesh network in the sky.
Users below have Internet antennae they attach the side of their house which can send and receive data signals from the balloons passing overhead.
Some 50 people were chosen to take part in Saturday’s trial and were able to link to the Internet.
The company’s ultimate goal is to have a ring of balloons circling the Earth, ensuring there is no part of the globe that can’t access the web.
“The idea may sound a bit crazy — and that’s part of the reason we’re calling it Project Loon — but there’s solid science behind it,” Google said.
But the company added: “This is still highly experimental technology and we have a long way to go.”