Google’s Projects Loon and SkyBender are taking Internet connectivity to greater heights

Industries: General
  • Project Loon –  giant floating Internet hotspots
  • Project SkyBender – beaming 5G Internet to the ground below
  • Benefits for the masses but mostly, benefits for Google

In an attempt to fill the skies with flying objects that provide high-speed Internet to inaccessible areas and ‘under-connected’ regions of the world, Facebook as well as Google have been testing various aerial devices. Facebook’s Aquila, the Wi-Fi lasering, solar-powered drone and Google’s Project Loon Internet balloons are both aimed at beaming Internet from the sky but now, the Google Access team has also ‘secretly’ started the Skybender project at Richard Branson’s hanger at the Virgin Galactic Space Gateway in New Mexico. It looks like the race to provide the entire new generation with high-speed Internet has begun. Let’s take a look at Google’s latest projects.

Project Loon – giant floating Internet hotspots

It was June 2013 when Google’s Project Loon first revealed its plan to beam wireless Internet from the skies through gigantic floating balloon hotspots – launching about thirty of their inflatable envelope-type aerial vehicles from New Zealand. The solar-powered balloons travel approximately 20 km above the Earth’s surface with algorithms telling them where to go. Being one of Google’s latest technological innovations, the project is aimed at increasing Internet coverage in areas with a low population density and limited accessibility. The system also has the potential to restore or improve connectivity within hours of a crisis such as during natural disasters. The service needs to be robust, however. If it fails during a crisis, many lives will be lost.

This year, Google is hoping to launch its (literal) round-the-world coverage, launching more than 300 of these balloons in a continuous string around the globe. The intention is to ensure that one particular area is always covered by a balloon and as soon as one floats away, another one takes its place. The balloons fly out of eyesight and gather enough energy from the solar panels to power them for a day. Made from polyethylene plastic, the balloons are 12 metres high and 15 metres wide when inflated. Beneath the balloons are radio transceivers for data exchange a GPS location tracker, a flight computer and a backup radio. Ground stations below bounce signals up to the balloons. They have an altitude control system that enables them to find winds to take them in the required direction. They are designed to stay up for at least three months at a time.

As each balloon provides connectivity to an area of 80 kilometres in diameter underneath it, the first continuous string of balloons is scheduled to be deployed to cover the Southern Hemisphere – this is where the earth’s circumference is half of the equator’s. Partnerships with Indonesian Internet providers XL Axiata, Telkomsel and Indosat have already been formed. This enables the transmission of their Internet signals even to remote parts of the country as well as surrounding islands. The initiative could give all Indonesians access to the Internet, as opposed to only one in every three Indonesians. The balloons have seen significant improvements since they were first introduced in 2013 – connected devices can now enjoy 4G-type speeds and instead of a few days, the balloons can now last a couple of months. Also, it used to take around two hours and 12 people to prepare and setup the balloons. Now this is done within 15 minutes, using an automated crane and only a couple of people to assist.

drawn representation of the internet on a blue background with houses and buildings
Project Loon looks to build a ring of connectivity around the world.

Project Skybender – beaming 5G Internet to the ground below

With Facebook’s Internet drone project Aquila leading the way, Google has now launched top secret project Skybender, brought by the same division that introduced project Loon. At Virgin Atlantic’s Space Gateway hanger in New Mexico, the Tech giant is constructing installations with servers, transceivers and other tech, enabling them to start experimenting with solar powered drones to deliver 5G Internet to remote parts of the world and increase Internet speeds in cities. The Virgin spaceport is shared by fellow tenants UP Aerospace and SpaceX, who have granted Google room to carry out its project operations there.

The solar-powered drones used in the Skybender project are made by Google-acquired Titan Aerospace, as well as the Centaur aircraft, produced by Aurora Flight Sciences. The drones beam down millimetre waves, the backbone of 5G networks. These are capable of transmitting data at speeds forty times faster than our current 4G LTE, making it possible, for instance, to download full length HD movies in the blink of an eye. Millimetre waves provide access to new spectrum because the existing cell phone spectrum is overcrowded. The challenge with the transmissions of millimetre waves, however, is that they fade after a short distance and are easily disrupted by fog, rain and snow. As a result, they can’t compare to the range of mobile phone signals.

In order to avoid problematic weather conditions, the solar-powered drones hover at heights of between 18.500 metres and 27.500 metres, above commercial aircraft altitudes. They will float at higher altitudes during the day, and to conserve energy, they will move down to lower altitudes at night. Besides Facebook and Google, DARPA, the research and development arm of the US military, has also been working with millimetre wave technology and drones. In 2014, they announced the Mobile Hotspots Program to create a fleet of drones which could provide troops operating in remote areas with Internet connectivity at one gig per second.

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Beneficial for the masses but mostly – beneficial for Google

Projects Loon and SkyBender are both aimed at providing high-speed Internet, beamed from the sky, to remote or inaccessible parts of the world where land-based wireless infrastructure, fibre optic cables or mobile phone masts are a challenge. Experts say the projects have the potential to blast developing countries into the digital age. Entire segments of the population would reap the benefits; from economic and educational opportunities to social inclusion. Of course, Google’s projects Loon and SkyBender aren’t entirely intended to meet the need for broadband wireless communications. Google’s primary objective is to expand its core business and by bringing Internet to the masses, the world’s largest advertising network is able to expand its empire. The more Internet users, the more advertising revenue Google generates from its free services – Gmail and YouTube. Google has not officially introduced Project SkyBender yet and there has been no mention of a timeframe when the testing will be completed. The Federal Communications Commission has however given Google permission to continue its testing operations until July. Watch this space.

Industries: General
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