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Google’s high altitude balloons float over East Africa

At least three helium balloons are at high altitude over East Africa this weekend. The balloons are part of Google’s Project Loon which aims at providing internet access to remote parts of the world.

A Google illustration showing the Project Loon concept.

A Google illustration showing the Project Loon concept.

If ongoing trials on Project Loon are successful, Google will deploy hundreds of helium balloons in the earth’s stratosphere at altitudes of up to 90,000 feet.

Each balloon has solar-powered electronic equipment that connect to other balloons to create a computer-like network. People on the ground with a special antenna can access the internet through the balloon network. The antenna can be mounted to the side of a home or business.

“Many of us think of the Internet as a global community. But two-thirds of the world’s population does not have Internet access. Project Loon is a network of balloons designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters,” says Google on its website.

Project Loon was officially launched in June 2013 and trials began in New Zealand shortly afterwards. One of the balloons circled the earth in 22 days using the high speed winds above the southern oceans.

Google’s balloons are designed to fly at altitudes of 60,000 – 90,000 feet. This puts the balloons safely above the reach of commercial aircraft. However, Google says that it coordinates with local civil aviation authorities especially when launching balloons and during descent.

Project Loon balloons are not entirely at the mercy of the winds. Each balloon has a control unit that receives meteorological data especially on wind speeds and direction. The control unit directs the balloon upwards or downwards to the right wind that will take the balloon where it needs to go. This means that Google balloons can be deployed to any part of the world. This can be very useful in re-establishing internet links where normal land-based networks are damaged.

The ultimate goal of Project Loon is to have balloons floating in the air for 100 days but this has not yet been achieved.

There are concerns that Project Loon and similar activities by US-based internet companies – including Facebook – could compromise the sovereignty of states. With such networks, it is possible to bypass government attempts at censoring or shutting down the internet. Most developing countries lack weapons and fighter aircraft that can go beyond 60,000 feet.

One of the more prominent critics of Project Loon has been Microsoft founder Bill Gates who says that the world’s poor need immediate and practical solutions to problems such as hunger, malaria and diarrhoea. Internet access, says Gates, is not a priority for the poor.

NOTE: It is possible to track the progress of Project Loon balloons on Flightradar24.

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