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Internet from Solar-Powered Balloons? Loon Brings Mesh Connectivity from 12 Miles Up

May 18, 2020 by Gary Elinoff

A Google subsidiary, Loon, is sending solar-powered balloons twelve miles into the stratosphere to beam LTE down to sparsely-populated or disaster-struck regions.

Five years ago, we discussed Loon, a subsidiary of Google's parent company Alphabet, as a fledgling internet project. Now, according to Reuters, Loon is deploying stratosphere-trekking balloons to provide limited 4G coverage for Mozambique’s remote, northern Cabo Delgado and Niassa provinces.

 

A Loon balloon about to launch

A Loon balloon about to launch from Loon’s Nevada launch site. Image used courtesy of Loon
 

To provide this coverage, Loon teamed up with Vodacom to extend connectivity to widespread and low-population areas, giving Mozambicans access to critical healthcare information regarding COVID-19. 

 

Loon balloon

The Loon balloon in action. Image used courtesy of Loon

 

How the Loon Balloons Work

Loon equipment is made up of four main parts: 

  1. Antennas, which transmit connectivity from a ground network to a mesh network of balloons—then back down to a user's LTE device
  2. Solar panels that power equipment by day and an on-board battery to supply power at night
  3. A flight system housing electronic devices that command the overall system
  4. A parachute, which eases a balloon to the ground

 

Loon equipment architecture

Loon equipment architecture. Image used courtesy of Loon
 

The image below is a basic rendering of the connectivity device attached to the Loon balloon, which can bring limited connectivity anywhere in the world, including areas with little connectivity infrastructure and disaster-struck areas. 

 

Diagram of how Loon balloons work

Diagram of how Loon balloons work. Image used courtesy of Loon

 

Because the "tennis court-sized polythene balloon" hovers 12 miles above sea level, its LTE coverage can reach customers using standard cell phones over a wide area on the ground.

A group of Loon balloons will hover over a defined area with one or more able to cover users in any part of the coverage area.

While a cell phone tower also communicates with customers, it is connected to servers via fiber optical cable. Not so with the airborne Loon balloon; it must communicate to a ground station via radio signals. And, because it may not always be close enough to a ground station, it might instead have to relay its signal to another balloon within its network that’s in closer proximity to a ground station.

 

Network Orchestration

Quite literally, Loon balloons surf the winds of the stratosphere, far above wildlife, airplanes, and inclement weather. Using predictive models of winds, autonomous decision-making algorithms, and operators on the ground, the balloon is maneuvered up or down into the wind, pushing the balloon in the right direction—a new “Age of Sail” in the stratosphere!

 

Loon networks moving in the wind

Loon Balloons moving up or down to reach a wind that is blowing in the needed direction. Image used courtesy of Loon

 

The system, a software-defined network (SDN), uses predictive models of those winds along with autonomous decision-making algorithms to jockey individual balloons into the right layer of wind. In this manner, balloons can be launched from points far from the coverage area and maintain its position once it gets there.

Loon explains, "Our entire network can function autonomously, efficiently routing connectivity across balloons and ground stations while taking into account balloon motion, obstructions, and weather events."

 

Balloons Launched to Disaster Sites Thousands of Miles Away

When Hurricane Maria smashed into Puerto Rico, Loon balloons were launched from Nevada to provide emergency communications services to affected residents.

Loon balloon can often stay afloat for 100 days with one record-setter logging more than six months.

In 2017, a series of disastrous floods wreaked havoc in Peru. Loon, with its Peruvian partner Telefónica, sent a network of balloons to restore communications for tens of thousands of citizens, spread out over 40,000 square kilometers. Without Loon, these residents would have no phone or internet service at all.

 

Peru Loon service

In red are the flood-affected areas of Peru, which lost some or all connectivity. The orange dots indicate where Loon balloons restored LTE. Image used courtesy of Medium
 

Loon and Telefónica again rushed to Peruvians' aid within 48 hours of an 8.0 earthquake, centered in the Amazon. 

 

Loon prepares a balloon for takeoff to the Amazon.

Loon prepares a balloon for takeoff to the Amazon. Image used courtesy of Loon
 

Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth pointed out how over 160 GB of data has been transferred via Loon balloons. Here, a cautionary corollary to the Loon concept must be noted. Today’s internet user uses almost 1% of that total to download a movie. So, while no doubt this priceless information provided connectivity to disaster-struck regions, Loon is no substitute for modern networks based on fiber optics.

 

A Temporary Solution to Sparse Connectivity

Although Loon balloons aren't a perfect substitute for connectivity based on cell towers, they do offer several unique advantages: for one, they can be deployed to any place in the world. They also provide basic communication to remote or low-connectivity areas, preventing disasters from becoming catastrophes. 

And while individuals won’t be able to play data-hungry computer games online or download movies on Loon connectivity, the balloons can provide a connection to remote populations that otherwise wouldn’t have any connection at all.