Google's Project Loon balloons lost at sea

TOM PULLAR-STRECKER
Last updated 13:53 07/08/2013
Google Project Loon
Fairfax/MCT

PROJECT LOON: Google launched the first batch of balloons for 'Project Loon' from Lake Tekapo in June [left], and another batch over the skies of Dos Palos, California, on July 26 [right].

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Google has admitted some of the 30 "Project Loon" balloons it launched from Tekapo in June have been lost at sea.

The helium-filled 12-metre high polyethylene balloons were launched into the stratosphere in a "world first" experiment to test whether they could be used to provide internet access to remote regions.

Google's goal had been to guide the balloons back to designated "collection points", by controlling their altitude and taking advantage of different wind streams.

Sydney-based spokesman Johnny Luu said Google was able to recover most of the balloons using a boat it had put on standby for the purpose.

"[But] there were a few that were too far off the coast."

He earlier acknowledged that the balloons were capable of travelling as far as Antarctica.

Google had been working hard to minimise the environmental impact of Project Loon and its "ultimate goal" remained to recover all of the balloons, Luu said.

David Ware, chief executive of NZX-listed telecommunications firm TeamTalk, whose Farmside subsidiary specialises in providing broadband and calling services to rural New Zealand, said he believed Project Loon was probably "loony", because of the technical challenges.

"It is great Google is trying all these sorts of things at the fringes, like driverless cars, but I think this one is a step too far," he said.

A balloon-based internet service would not fly commercially in New Zealand because there were only a few tens of thousands of people who were unable to be served by existing terrestrial networks, and they could be connected via satellite, he said.

Google's June trial was to have been followed by a larger one involving 300 balloons.

Last month, Wellington-based policy manager Ross Young said the Project Loon team would be "back in New Zealand later this year" and the larger trial, which he said would involve several other southern hemisphere nations, would take place next year. However, Luu said he did not believe anything had been scheduled.

Google tested a smaller balloon at a launch in California last month.

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