In a mad mix of speculative research and sky-high inspiration, the trial of a technology that has the potential to change the world, started last week.  Billions of people, including New Zealanders who live in remote rural locations, will benefit if the trial proves its point.

Solving big problems and creating breakthrough technologies will ultimately bring more users to Google’s services
This is not the first time that Google, the world’s largest advertising network, has used its immense wealth to develop disruptive technologies.  Driverless cars and eyeglasses that are really voice-activated computers exist already.

Their latest endeavour, Project Loon, was launched on the last day of the 45th Fieldays.

Whereas Fieldays showcased many interesting and creative innovations, Project Loon launched what may become one of the greatest innovations of them all – the first 30 high altitude balloons that may become a global network of Internet access points.

Launched from Lake Tekapo, the balloons will rise to the stratosphere, 20km above the Earth’s surface.

To put that height in to perspective, commercial airplanes tend to cruise just above the world’s weather zone at around 10km.  Concorde cruised at 18km and the Lockheed “Blackbird” reconnaissance aircraft at 31 km.  Felix Baumgartner, the world record holder for the altitude record for a manned balloon, and for the highest skydive ever, jumped from 39.04km.

In the stratosphere, wind speeds peak at around 60–70 metres per second (216–252 kilometres per hour) giving a connectivity window for each balloon of around 15 minutes.

The thin plastic balloons are t15 metres in diameter and will maintain altitude for around 100 days.

They do not have motors and will mostly travel where ever the predictable winds take them.  That predicability will give some control of speed and direction of travel by varying the altitude of the balloon.

The on-board electronics are powered by solar cells with a battery backup for night time use.

Unlicensed spectrum will be used, meaning Google doesn’t have to complete the radio spectrum regulatory processes required of Internet retail service providers.  But it also raises the possibility of interference with existing wireless services.

Project Loon will deliver the equivalent of 3G cellular data speeds which will be fast enough for people currently without internet to be able to do the online basics.

The technology is not expected to be rolled out for three or four years yet – about the time that our government’s Rural Broadband Initiative is concluded.

A continuous connection will require a continuous stream of helium-filled balloons, circling at around 40km apart.  That means a lot of balloons circling the globe at different latitudes.

The capital cost of those balloons alone will jeopardise the viability of the project, but it is the world shortage of helium that will eventually make it unsustainable unless Google find an alternative gas.

Undaunted, Mike Cassidy, the director of Project Loon said “We are focused on an enormous problem, and we don’t think we have the one solution today.”  He is focused on how to get 5 billion people in remote areas connected to the Internet.

Which of course is what this “moon shot” of an idea is really about.  Solving big problems and creating breakthrough technologies will ultimately bring more users to Google’s services.

The fifty people in the Canterbury area chosen to take part in the trial will not be worried about all this.  They were able to connect to the internet for about 15 minutes.  They will not think the idea loony!   And despite the capital return and sustainability issues, neither do I.  If it does work, then it can only be good for our remote rural people.