Google are taking their plans for global Internet access further through the use of helium-filled balloons. “Project Loon” first appeared in June 2013, but was somewhat eclipsed in its scope in early 2014 by Facebook. The social media giants announced “Connectivity Lab,” which set forth dramatic plans to use solar-powered drones, laser beams, and satellites to bring the Internet to underprivileged nations.
Google responded with a similar drone initiative, but in June 2014 it emerged the Project Loon had been revitalised as numerous test runs were deployed in New Zealand. The plan is to have the balloons circulating in the stratosphere, beaming down free Wi-Fi to rural and remote areas of the world. Simultaneously, Google teamed up with NASA in 2013 to assist with the technology the American agency has been running. Their SPHERES robots aid astronauts with their work, but Google’s Project Tango could take the devices into a new era of productivity. Here’s how the technology could have an impact on the world.
Whilst the Internet is often thought of as globally inclusive, the reality is two thirds of the world’s population have no access to it. Facebook and Google have considered how to cover this “gap”; Mark Zuckerberg’s company postulated a series of extravagant plans involving solar-powered, long-distance drones, amongst numerous other options. This has been dubbed Connectivity Lab, and it hopes to bring free Internet access to the developing world.
Google reacted quickly to the news and announced an analogous scheme. Whilst this will be in ongoing development, for now it appears the company is keen to bring Project Loon to the fore of its mass internet access plans. As displayed in the official video below, it’s a grand scheme with far reaching implications:
As Google explains, the balloons “float in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes and the weather. In the stratosphere, there are many layers of wind, and each layer of wind varies in direction and speed. Loon balloons go where they’re needed by rising or descending into a layer of wind blowing in the desired direction of travel. People can connect to the balloon network using a special Internet antenna.”
The balloons will be able to provide connectivity to around a 40km area, with speeds along the same level as 3G. Antennas will be fitted to them for ground-to-balloon communication, with a specialised radio frequency technology developed especially for them. As they serenely drift around the world, Ism bands will be 3.4 and 5.8 GHz — these will be available for anyone.
The company has admitted Project Loon “present[s] some really hard science problems,” but it is their belief a ring of balloons relying on stratospheric winds could bring Internet access to billions of people.
Test runs for the project resumed in June 2014. There was a minor problem in New Zealand when one balloon went careering into the ocean — a concerned local believed a plane had crashed and promptly called the emergency services. A dramatic boat and helicopter rescue ensued, which led to the discovery of the partially submerged balloon; Google were later notified and reimbursed those involved in the rescue. The development of the project is ongoing.
Project Tango and NASA
Google have also revealed Project Tango, which intends to “give mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion.” The Android technology is based around 3D motion and depth sensing — these track the full motion of the device and simultaneously creates a map of the environment.
Google’s Johnny Lee explained on the official site, “This awareness of space and motion is fundamental to the way we interact with our environment and each other. We are physical beings that live in a 3D world. Yet, our mobile devices assume that physical world ends at the boundaries of the screen.” As with their Google Glass devices, their technology is continuing a trend of immersing technology into the user’s life, making the transition between day-to-day activities and technological interaction seamless.
What a person can do with Project Tango’s innovations is capture the dimensions around them, such as in the business or at home. Google has confirmed a “consumer level” product will be made available, and they’ve explained the potential in one of their official videos:
On an space-themed side note, NASA will be utilising this technology for their robots on the International Space Station. Since 2013 they have been working closely with Google, and the pair have been integrating the Project Tango technology into NASA’s SPHERES. These are spherical robots roughly the size of a basketball; they’re used in the International Space Station to assist astronauts with day-to-day activities. NASA noted the robots have been somewhat limited to date as all their navigational abilities are relatively primitive — they rely on ultrasound to get around.
The application of Project Tango technology would completely transform this. As detailed by the Google ATAP team, “The 3D-tracking and mapping capabilities of Project Tango would allow SPHERES to reconstruct a 3D-map of the space station and, for the first time in history, enable autonomous navigation of a floating robotic platform 230 miles above the surface of the earth.” There’s another video you can see here detailing the technology involved with the SPHERES and how Google are starting to impact on how space travel functions.
It’s a remarkable time in technological history, and it appears Google could be on the threshold of taking the Internet, and ease of space travel, into a new era.