The secret to global internet access? Fluffy socks

Author

Matthew Sparkes Deputy Head of Technology

November 26, 2014

Google hopes to launch thousands of balloons that will beam internet connections to isolated communities in developing nations, but it has faced a host of difficult problems since it was launched in 2011. Some of the solutions are surprisingly low-tech, reveal the team members

Google has released an update on its ambitious project to bring the internet to developing nations, claiming that it is now able to launch as many as 20 balloons a day – all of which now last much longer in orbit – thanks to hundreds of small improvements such as eliminating leaks and giving engineers fluffy socks.

Project Loon was launched by Google in 2011 under the leadership of the Google X team who also worked on self-driving cars and Glass. The idea is that thousands of balloons will rush around the Earth at an altitude of around 32km – twice the height that airliners cruise at – and beam internet connections around the globe.

Developing nations where few people are currently online would have 3G-speed connections – more than enough to access the wealth of information online and send emails. It will also help to maintain communications in areas hit by natural disaster.

The balloons have a solar panel which can generate enough power to run the base station for an entire day and night in just four hours.

The envelopes of the balloons are just 0.076 mm thick and made of a strong plastic. They are 15m wide and 12m tall and filled with lighter-than-air helium. A small electric pump can add air to adjust buoyancy and enable the balloon to control its own altitude.

In the early days of the project the balloons had a maximum flight duration of around 55 days. That has now been boosted to a record 130, and most launches now last over 100 days. That’s due to a series of small but cumulative improvements over recent years, said the project engineers in a blog post.

For instance, the team has learned through trial and error what the best footwear is for engineers who have to walk on the deflated canopies of balloons to prevent damage. “Turns out it’s very fluffy socks, the fluffier the better,” said team members.

“This is just one of the hundreds of discoveries that has helped prevent leaks and refine our automated manufacturing process so that our balloons now last ten times longer in the stratosphere than they did in 2013, with many lasting 100 days or more.

“Imagine how long it would take you and your friends to inflate 7,000 party balloons. That’s what it takes to fill just one of our Loon balloons for flight, so we’ve developed autofill equipment that will be capable of doing it in under 5 minutes. We now have the ability to launch up to 20 balloons per day as we continue to improve our ability to launch consistently at scale.”

Google Project Loon – in pictures

The team have also been using a strategy of constant trajectory simulations prior to launch in order to place the balloons in the correct flight path. One test flight came within 1.5km of its target after a flight of 9,000km.

“This is great for getting our balloons to where users need them, and great for getting balloons to our recovery zones at the end of their lifetime to make our recovery team’s job that much easier,” said the team.

The team also released images of the latest test launch (above) and a similar but far more basic launch in January 2013 (below) to show how far it had progressed in less than two years.

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