Is Ordinary Wireless Communications Good Enough for Google’s (GOOG) Loon Project?

Yossi Segal |

Ever heard of the loon project by Google ($GOOG)? Well, if this project would not have been backed by a company like Google, one would think this "balloon-powered Internet for everyone" was a sci-fi movie script. According to Google, "Project Loon balloons float in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes" to deliver internet access. By partnering with Telecommunications companies to share cellular spectrum, Google will enable people to connect to the balloon network directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices.It was recently reported that Google partnered with the Sri Lankan government to launch the project across the country.  According to Mike Cassidy, VP and project leader of Google X project Loon, Sri Lanka will become the first country to have complete internet access using hot-air balloons. The balloons are equipped with solar panels and can now last up to ten times longer than they did when they were first initiated in 2013. The Times of India also reports that Google has been in touch with the local government to launch the project in remote areas across India.

Google’s chief goal for Loon remains to provide access to much more underserved areas of the world such as Africa, where only 10% of people have Internet access, and Brazil, where kids often climb high in trees with cell phones to get a better signal.Google states that approximately 20 to 100 balloons can be launched per day.

Google is aiming to make the balloons even more cost-effective by having them communicate with each other, beaming signals via radio frequency using precisely aimed gimbals – something Loon is still experimenting with. With 20 to 100 balloons at any given territory, a communications, command, and control headquarter must be established to assure that all communications between all balloons as well as with headquarters is conducted and a balloon communications network is achieved. There are several communications challenges here:

1.       Communicating from a great altitude, meaning long distance

2.       Swarm/cloud communications between a group of multiple balloons and with multiple local headquarters

3.       Ad-Hoc communications, also referred to as peer-to-peer wireless communication from each balloon to each balloon, enhanced with relay capability to reach remote balloon via other balloon in the middle

4.       Security – assuring that all communications within the balloon network are secure and impervious to third-party intrusion

5.       Communications are conducted while balloon is constantly on-the-move

To overcome the above mentioned challenges, partnering with LTE based telecommunication companies may provide the communications to users on the ground as base-stations from the sky, however the challenges faced here will require technology and solutions designed for such an environment and task.

The communications technology that would be able to take on such a role would of course have to be based on LTE but also on 4G Mobile MESH that would enable vast communications routes among group or swarm of balloons and with multiple local headquarters, all in real time in order to enable real time coordination and self-management group decision making. Some MESH-based solutions will provide ordinary bi-directional communication, while others will support broadcast, multicast, and unicast that enable different data to be transmitted in different modes based on relevance and constrains while saving on bandwidth resources which ultimately adds up to optimal operation. Some may even enable all communications including: flight control, telemetry, payload control, and distribution between an operator's ground stations and other balloons to be supported by a single bi-directional communications channel, thus drastically reducing overhead maintenance and resources.

All this would have to be light weight, low-power consumption, and ruggedized units that are susceptible to harsh conditions of low temperatures, vibrations and strong winds, water proof sealed, etc.  Security wise, such critical infrastructure mandates utmost security with multiple layers embedded within the communications units.

It is important to understand the communications challenges entailed in launching such a project and analyze the different MESH or swarm communication options out there in order to assure a smooth operation and management of such a great and creative project.

Who would have thought that an almost child-like idea may be the future of communications for underserved countries? Who would have thought wireless communications would break yet another boundary to deliver the communications for such an imaginary idea to come true? I wonder what other creative ideas are out there.

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