Up, up and away for sky-high wi-fi

20:43, Jun 15 2013
LIFT OFF: Google's Project X division conducts experiments in Tekapo.

The huge helium balloon lifts off the ground, billowing into the clear Tekapo skies.

It glides gently through the atmosphere, rising as if weightless.

But this is no ordinary balloon: it carries the hopes of Google scientists and engineers, who believe it could change global communications forever.

OPERATION LOON: Google's Project X division gets balloon-powered internet off the ground in Tekapo.

The top-secret, balloon-powered internet technology has been developed over the past 18 months by Google's X division in California - where they previously created driverless cars and Google Glass (which put a computer into a pair of glasses, using the lenses to display information that only the wearer can see, such as maps to give directions as you walk through a city).

The Google engineers have been working out of a dilapidated brick warehouse in Christchurch, assembling balloons for the test.

Last week's launch of the balloon-powered internet was a clandestine operation. We're not sure what we're in for as we're bundled into the back of a van, and driven from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo late at night.


On the drive, one of the project's founders, engineer Richard DeVaul, explains.

"We want to create a network of balloons, beaming internet down to the Earth."

I'm stunned. It sounds farcical.

DeVaul admits it is "a bit crazy", which is one of the reasons Google's team codenamed the experimental technology Project Loon.

The plan is to launch the huge balloon almost 20 kilometres into the stratosphere - more than twice the height at which commercial jets fly.

The balloons are equipped with antennae that can connect to the internet - either from a ground station or via another balloon - and beam it down to Earth at speeds similar to today's 3G network. This creates a chain, or network, of balloons.

People on the ground are set up with a special antenna that will connect to the internet of any balloon overhead.

DeVaul says the technology is still in the prototype stage but if the Tekapo experiment is successful it could change the world of communications.

"Rather than having a bunch of fixed cell towers on the ground, we have a bunch of balloons in the sky that access each cell tower as they drift over.

"When one balloon drifts away, another one drifts along transmitting the internet. With enough balloons we could provide continuous coverage to the ground below."

He believed the balloons could fix connectivity problems worldwide - linking deserts in Africa, jungles in Asia and the barren Australian Outback - and help in the aftermath of a disaster, when infrastructure is affected.

"More than five billion people still don't have access to the internet," DeVaul said. "A network in the sky of balloons can fill in the gaps in a flexible, fast and cost-effective way."

But before any of that can happen, we have to see if this balloon actually works.

As the sun rises on a cool, cloudless day, we head to Tekapo's airstrip. I've been picturing small helium balloons in my mind, but these balloons are massive - 15 metres in diameter - and equipped with solar panels and GPS systems. A team of engineers rushes around them, checking ropes and equipment.

As we watch, the balloon is inflated and, after a quick countdown, released.

We hop into a fleet of helicopters and follow the balloon's graceful ascent. Before long, it has flown too high to follow and we head to the test point for the experiment.

Geraldine couple Anna and Hayden MacKenzie look stunned as three choppers land in their back paddock and a team of engineers pile out.

Google contacted the couple several weeks before the test, made them sign non-disclosure agreements and hooked up a special red antenna to their garage.

Now, we're going to see if it was worth it. Within a few minutes, engineers, who have been tracking the balloon via GPS, let us know it has moved into position.

We rush inside to the MacKenzies' lounge, where they attempt to load an internet page.

Success! Trade Me appears on screen.

"It's just as fast as our normal internet, " Anna MacKenzie said.

"It's unbelievable to think it's coming from a tiny balloon way up in the sky."

The launch is deemed a success by the Google engineers, who say New Zealand's location made it the perfect choice for the test.

"There aren't that many countries in the southern hemisphere, so we have to alert fewer people that these strange balloons may be flying over, " said DeVaul.

Although balloon technology may seem like a gimmick, DeVaul believes the potential is huge.

He envisages a "ring of balloons", floating around the globe and providing affordable internet to rural and remote areas.

"Cell towers have to be connected to fibre, you can't just stick them everywhere. There's a lot of obstacles to putting those everywhere - mountains, jungles, water. The sky connects every place on the planet. This could be the world's first solar power global communications network."

Balloon-powered internet could also be launched in the aftermath of disasters, DeVaul said.

"If the network goes down on the ground, balloon-powered internet is a quick way to get it back up and running. For example, if the earthquakes in Christchurch had wiped out the network we could have launched the balloons, transmitting the internet from somewhere like Dunedin to Christchurch."

The balloons can currently stay in the air for a period of weeks; our balloon was heading out towards Chile. However, DeVaul believes that in the future they may be able to stay up for hundreds of days at a time.

He wouldn't be drawn on the exact cost of a balloon network but said it would cost "a heck of a lot less" than satellite technology.

"The materials are pretty inexpensive. The plastic of the balloons is similar to that in shopping bags and the electronics aren't that different from consumer electronics. This is a very cost-effective way to connect the world."

The next step for Google is taking the product beyond a prototype.

"A year ago we weren't sure this was possible. After the launch at Tekapo, we've demonstrated that it is, " DeVaul said.

"We will need partners on the ground to make this work. We've shown the world what we can do. We think it's awesome and hopefully they do too."

Sunday Star Times