Google’s Project Loon, which proposes the use of a network of balloons travelling miles above the planet to beam WiFi signals back to Earth, took a huge step forward last week, when the Ibis-167 balloon completed its first circumnavigation of the globe in just 22 days. The event is noteworthy because Google itself had previously stated that the balloons were meant to circle the globe three times in a period of 100 days, meaning that Ibis-167 is moving faster than the company had originally planned.
The idea of using balloons to develop science and technology is certainly not a new one. Much of our earliest understanding of meteorology, and our current ability to forecast weather, can be traced back to the work of pioneering balloonists in the 19th century, who ascended to great heights in order to collect weather data. While manned ballooning has since been relegated to a hobby instead of a serious scientific pursuit, technology expert, Jason Hope (https://medium.com/@jasonhope) pointed out that the feat achieved by Ibis-167 is a clear indication that ballooning is not a dead technology.
“An idea like Project Loon has important implications for our understanding of how technology develops, and I’m excited to see that it’s passed this major milestone,” said Hope. “I think it’s amazing that Google, which is known for being one of the most innovative companies in the world, is using what most people assume is outdated technology to do something that could have tremendous implications for the Internet going into the future. It just goes to show that the idea that technology can only move in one direction is completely false. Sometimes, when a company like Google reaches into the past, grabs an idea, and then updates that idea for the modern era, it can lead to great things.”
One of the greatest challenges facing Project Loon is that the balloons themselves lack propulsion, meaning that they will essentially be at the mercy of wind currents at all times. This presents a serious challenge for the idea of building a WiFi network with balloons, because the individual balloons would have to be moving at all times. As a result, gathering wind data and knowing how to navigate the winds properly is one of the most important aspects of Google’s early Project Loon test flights.
One of the key driving forces behind Ibis-167’s speedy first lap around the world was a more efficient air pump, which allows the balloon to quickly adjust its altitude. Winds move at different speeds and in different directions at different altitudes above the Earth, so being able to move up and down very quickly allowed Ibis-167 to hit the right winds at the right time, contributing to its high overall speed. Ibis-167’s circumnavigation took it around the Earth in the Southern Hemisphere, crossing over Argentina and Chile before passing south of Australia and New Zealand.
The balloon’s path, which essentially forms a tight loop around Antarctica, might have taken it into the path of the polar vortex, powerful circular wind currents that would have blown Ibis-167 off course and possibly delayed the circumnavigation. However, using the advanced navigation abilities of Ibis-167, the Google team was able to navigate around those winds and keep the balloon on course. Ibis-167 has now begun the second of its three planned laps around the Earth.
Google first announced the project in June 2013, and had conducted a number of test flights to collect data and experiment with improvements to the balloons. While the company admittedly still has a long way to go to get to a point where a network of WiFi balloons could be feasible, the Ibis-167 circumnavigation certainly creates reason for enthusiasm.
“If Google succeeds in doing what they’re trying to do, it would mean great things for people in rural and underdeveloped parts of the world. We know that bringing affordable high-speed Internet to those places is one of the final frontiers that we’re working toward, so why couldn’t balloon technology play a role in making that happen? Obviously, they still have a long way to go, but the Ibis-167 flight shows that they have the ability to control and navigate the balloons properly, and that’s the first step toward making Project Loon a success.”
About the Author
Amy Taylor is a business and technology writer. Amy began her career as a small business owner in Phoenix, AZ. She enjoys writing about business technology trends. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking with her Alaskan Malamute, Sam.
YouTube: Introducing Project Loon
Photo credit: The West Studio / Google