About a few weeks ago, I was walking to my office when saw a gigantic white balloon being blown up right outside my office building. Intrigued, I began investing and discovered Project Loon.
Recently, Google announced its newest endeavor: Project Loon. It hopes to enhance the web's influence by providing internet to everyone in the world through a series of hot air balloons with attached routers. When Google’s chairman, Eric Schimdt announced in April that "For every person online, there are two who are not. By the end of the decade, everyone on Earth will be connected,” no one would have guessed that this bold statement would be carried out by Google X, the division in Google in charge of Project Loon.
Over the past few years, Google X has released a number of incredible projects, including Google Glass, Self Driving Cars, as well as other projects related to neural networks. Google X is Google’s secret research and development lab that is headed by Sergey Brim himself. The division is rumored to house hundreds of projects related to futuristic technologies, which until now, we have only witnessed in movies and our wildest imaginations.
About ten years ago, no one would have predicted that smart phones would become such an integral part of how we lead our lives or that the internet would facilitate such a strong influence in educational transparency and cultural integration across multiple continents. An entire genre of jobs have erupted on the web over the last decade, many of which are based solely around spreading knowledge. YouTube, for example, has thousands of “how to” videos. With internet becoming available to millions of web secluded people, there will be a drastic surge of these videos. Imagine how Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter and other crowd sources websites would look after 4.5 billion more people go online and begin contributing.
The balloons that project loon will use will be inflated with Helium and will use solar energy to operate. They are supposed to be operated through a vertically motioned user interface. Operators will be able to maneuver the balloons around the globe by using winds currents since air currents flow in opposite directions separated by a given vertical distance. Hence, by controlling the balloons altitude, theoretically, it is possible to move the balloons to their rightful location. The problem with this motor control is the inability of these balloons to stay in one place for long enough. However, this issue can be overcome by eventually having enough balloons in the sky to ensure that there is a balloon covering every position on the globe.
These balloons will not influence flight patterns of airplanes as they will be higher up than the airspace in which airplanes fly. Each balloon will be able to cover approximately 1200 square kilometers. With multiple balloons in one location, the signal strength could also be improved. This allows the internet connection to be optimized as denser populated areas like cities will need more balloons whereas rural area will naturally require fewer balloons.
Currently each balloon can only stay active for a few weeks but this problem will hopefully be remedied within the next few months. At this very moment, there are more than a couple of dozen balloons floating around New Zealand, where this project is being beta tested.
Benefits for Google
Initially, when the project was announced, it appeared as if Google is spending millions of dollars on a project providing internet to billions of people without any form of payment in return. So, how will Google make any profit from this project? Considering that Google is an advertisement company, increasing the volume of internet users would invariably increase traffic on the world’s leading search engine, Google Search. This accrual in search users implies that more ads will be displayed, swelling Google’s pockets even deeper.
Also, considering that today’s internet marketing model requires purchasers to manually install a router in their houses, Loon will already have a distinct dominance. Adopting Loon as your internet connection would require no external hardware, decreasing barriers that users would have to deal with when deciding whether or not to get an internet connection. Google’s competitors that also provide similar services like Time Warner Cable will automatically have a reduced market share. Also Space Systems would also be at a disadvantage since their satellites cost more to maintain by multiple levels of magnitude than the Loon balloons do.
Pros for the World
Project Loon is clearly an asset to Google. However, it is also a convenience to the rest of the world. One of the most obvious avails of the project is the Availability of Information. Assuming all the mechanisms of the project are functioning as planned, every single person who has access to some device that has wifi access would be able to search for almost any form of media online. Farmers in remote corners of third world countries would be able to research and analyze multiple techniques that could increase their yield, a father would be able to stay in touch with his daughter no matter which township either one of them lived in, villagers across an country would be able to transparently examine the countries political scenario and vote appropriately.
The second benefit is naturally Education. With millions of uneducated children all across the world, this program might be able to successfully provide schooling through online classes on topics ranging anywhere from disaster management to literary analysis. Even without any additional content, these new users would at the very least have access to existing online resources including W3School, CodeAcademy and many others.
Health and Medicine is another area that will be affected by Loon. With globally available data on disease outbreaks and medical breakthrough, the entire population will be able to adjust to epidemics or adopt new drugs or medications.
Loon’s Use of Renewable Energy will greatly influence and inspire future projects as well. Creating an interplay between solar energy to keep the balloon functional while using wind energy to define its motor controls will help reduce the burden on coal, petroleum and other non-renewable energy sources.
Finally, Collaboration between people across the globe will become much easier with the constant connectivity to the each other through the internet, allowing newer more complicated projects to arise. For example, NGO’s in Africa could clearly demonstrate to their investors from Canada precisely how they are implementing their communal goals.
The main problem with launching any hardware project is the certainty of eventual hardware failure. In most cases, the hardware is usually accessible and can be fixed. However, for airplanes, rockets, satellites, and now Loon balloons, hardware failure is a huge problem as they can not be reached. If a Loon balloon fails, it can either remain up in the air floating, making it difficult to bring down or it might go down in unwanted areas. Both of these scenarios are a huge concern to the stability as well as the safety of people whose lives might be affected by unwanted balloon landings.
Another concern over this project is internet privacy since it gives Google more power over a wider range of consumer behavior. This information can become a security issue if it is shared with Government agencies like the NSA.
In conclusion, Project Loon is an ambitious project and the world will highly benefit from it. But do the pros outweigh the cons?
1. Eric Schimdt: http://www.businessinsider.com/eric-schmidts-bold-internet-prediction-2013-4
2. Google Glass: http://www.google.com/glass/start/
3. Self Driving Cars: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=cdgQpa1pUUE
4. Neural Network: http://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1266579
5. Sergey Brim: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergey_Brin