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Google’s Weather Balloons are Providing Internet for Puerto Rico

How Google's Project Loon is using weather balloons to deliver internet

X, Google’s secretive research-and-development lab, works on some seriously sci-fi endeavors – moonshot ideas like fuel made from seawater, energy harvesting kites, and teleportation (and that’s just the stuff we know about).

Their Project Loon – an attempt to deliver internet via weather balloons – is another seemingly outlandish initiative.

But it’s actually being used right now, providing internet access to more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans who have lost internet access (and much more) in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Here’s everything you need to know about Project Loon.

What is Project Loon?

Project Loon aims to provide internet access to remote and rural communities via a network of stratospheric weather balloons.

Essentially, each Project Loon balloon – about the size of a tennis court – is a polythene shell containing the components of a cell phone tower. Those components must be made to withstand the bruising conditions of Earth’s stratosphere, however.

On average, the stratosphere begins eight miles above the earth’s surface; temperatures can reach -130 degrees Fahrenheit and winds reach speeds of more than 60 miles per hour.

How does Project Loon work?

Project Loon partners with telecoms to transmit wireless internet signal up to the balloons. That signal is then transmitted across Project Loon’s network of balloons and then beamed down to people in need, providing internet access to any LTE-enabled device.

According to Google, each balloon has a coverage area of 5,000 square kilometers (approximately 1,900 square miles).

Solar panels charge the equipment during the day and a lightweight battery serves at night.

How do Project Loon balloons navigate?

That’s where it gets even trickier – the balloons navigation depends entirely on stratospheric winds, where air currents are highly stratified and vary widely in speed and direction.

As X explains, “To get balloons to where they need to go, Project Loon uses predictive models of the winds and decision-making algorithms to move each balloon up or down into a layer of wind blowing in the right direction. By moving with the wind, the balloons can be arranged to provide coverage where it’s needed.”

Project Loon navigators control the height of the balloon via a smaller balloon within the main helium chamber, Popular Science explains. “By pumping that interior vessel full of air from the atmosphere—or releasing that air out—the flying machine goes down or up. So the mechanism that’s moved Project Loom balloons some 16 million miles is very basic physics…”

Is Project Loon for real?

It is. You can see the current location of the Project Loon balloons on flightradar24.

Earlier this year, a set of balloons were dispatched to Peru after extreme rains and flooding displaced hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed much local infrastructure.

More recently, Project Loon balloons are currently dispatched in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, providing internet access to an estimated 100,000 residents.

Alastair Westgarth, the head of Project Loon, wrote on October 30, “Working with AT&T and T-Mobile, Project Loon is now supporting basic communication and internet activities like sending text messages and accessing information online for some people with LTE enabled phones. This is the first time we have used our new machine learning powered algorithms to keep balloons clustered over Puerto Rico, so we’re still learning how best to do this. As we get more familiar with the constantly shifting winds in this region, we hope to keep the balloons over areas where connectivity is needed for as long as possible.”

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