Google's Project Loon balloons fly far and wide
Search-engine giant Google thought the idea of launching balloons from New Zealand offering free wifi to anybody under them so risky they've called it Project Loon.
But its turning out Loon's balloons are astonishing travellers.
One, launched in the South Island last June, has been around the world three times and another has clocked up 77,929 kilometres and is still flying.
Tech magazine Wired reports that since the first public test flights in New Zealand, when 30 balloons were launched from Tekapo, Google's balloons have clocked more than 1.5 million kilometres.
They carry wifi connections allowing people in remote areas high quality internet connections - as long as the balloon is in range.
Google's ultimate aim is to have a full ring of 300 to 400 balloons circling the globe to offer continuous service to a targeted area.
The project was launched on June 13 last year by Prime Minister John Key.
Wired says the first balloons in the New Zealand tests lasted only a few days.
Google has improved Loon flight times by upgrading altitude control systems to increase balloons' vertical range.
"As a result, it's not unusual for Google to keep balloons flying for 75 days," Wired said.
One balloon, code named Ibis 152, has been aloft for more than 100 days and is still flying.
Google has released a chart showing its voyage, heading out into the South Pacific near Dunedin and for the first four weeks out over the ocean. For three weeks it made a big circle across the empty South East Pacific and by week six it was south of Cape Horn at the end of South America. A week later it was south of Cape Town in South Africa.
Between weeks eight and 11 the balloon flew across much of Australia, reaching the Tasman Sea near the Queensland-New South Wales border. Anybody checking their wifi connections in Sydney at the time might even have noticed it.
A week later it was north of Cape Reinga and charging across the Pacific again.
In one dramatic week it sped from the southeast Pacific to the southern Indian Ocean.
The map ends with Ibis 152 flying 18,200 metres over the ocean between the Auckland and Campbell Islands - still offering free wifi to anybody well south of Invercargill.
An earlier balloon out of New Zealand, Ibis 162, circled the globe three times before returning to Earth. One of its circumnavigations set a record of just 22 days.
Mike Cassidy, a project director at Google's high-risk research Division X, told Wired that internet service enabled by high-altitude balloons was more than a possibility.
"We've definitely crossed the point where there's a greater than 50 per cent chance that this will happen," he said.
Division X head Astro Teller told Wired that Google had a clear idea of how it will make money off Loon. While it would connect much of the world's poor, the balloons also connect up for dramatically improved roaming experiences in rich areas.
"Even in the middle of Silicon Valley you can lose connections while driving; large buildings and hills can block the signals," he said.
"Balloons can fill in dead spots."
It said Google was working with Vodafone in New Zealand to make it work.