Can We Trust Google With the Stratosphere?

Project Loon is Google's plan to bring Internet to places that don't have it. It's also Google's plan to put its unmanned aerial vehicles all over the globe.

The challenge is simple. Simple enough for a child to explain. In fact it's a child's voice, over a rolling piano and elegant animation that introduced Google's bold new step into the future: Project Loon. "For each person that can get online, there are two that can't... What if there was a way to light up the entire world? And make all of the world's information accessible to all of the world's people?"

It's a challenge that Google aims to answer -- with a soaring, international balloon armada, beaming Internet to the parts of the world that don't have it.

Project Loon has gotten a fair amount of attention. The few advertisements Google has released emphasize an idealist bent and the humanitarian potential of bringing a connection to the farthest reaches of the developing world. Criticism, from the likes of Bill Gates and others, has focused on whether the world's poor need social networking and streaming video as much as medicine and food.

The proposed delivery system has thus far escaped similar scrutiny, which is too bad, because the very mechanics of Project Loon highlight serious legal, diplomatic, and government tensions, which Google is either ignoring, unaware of, or operating in spite of. And yet, that said, it's not Google's job to enforce regulatory oversight; breaking ground means new rules have to be invented, too.

The project's name makes it seem inoffensive, unobjectionable. But the longer you look at the Loon craft, the less they look like balloons. If Google's claims about the Loon balloons' navigability are true, it is in fact an 'unmanned aircraft,' sometimes more pejoratively referred to as a drone. And what's worrisome is not so much Google's stated goal, but that with unprecedented proprietary technology, scant law on the books, and a few key government connections, Project Loon may only be a harbinger of a new era in our relationship to the skies overhead, one that our laws are dramatically unprepared for.

What's in a loon?
Loon's New Zealand tests in June were promising. As many as 50 people logged on to Google Balloon Internet. After that, Loon went back underground. On July 26, the project reemerged on American soil, in the farming community of Dos Palos, California. But unlike tests in New Zealand, the Dos Palos demonstration didn't involve the government, the scientific community, or the academic world. It was for the kids.

The American launch was livestreamed in a Google Hangout, part of an online-only summer camp for young teens, funded by Google and Make magazine -- the culmination of Fun & Games week. But it was fascinating even if you weren't a teen: "Campers" asked questions via the Google+ page, got a closer look at the technology, and saw a balloon get set up, launched, and tracked, all over the course of an hour that morning.

The guest of honor was Lauren Rojas, who was invited on the popularity of her seventh grade science project, a launch of a high-altitude weather balloon almost 18 miles into Earth's stratosphere. The video of her project, which went viral earlier this year, was set perfectly to Fun's "We Are Young" and captured by GoPro cameras. Though the balloon was technically 'unmanned,' it still had an adorable pilot: Gazing out the porthole as the sky turned black and the sun crested around the curvature of the Earth, waved a Hello Kitty doll.

Google's Loon balloons are much different than Rojas' prototype. Several times larger, each Loon carries a computer -- a stack of custom-built boards direct from the secretive Google X lab. Google advertises the ability to "steer" its balloons around the world, organizing its flotilla to drift over specific locations. They're lightweight, entirely solar-powered, and controlled from the ground by Google Mission Control. This provides for tracking, navigation, and a very long lifespan.

Google X goes about its business the way any good mad scientist should. Locked away from the rest of the world, which doesn't understand its vision, the secret lab focuses all its time and energy on "moonshots" -- the wild, the experimental. Google X is only a bicycle ride away from Google's main campus in Mountain View, but a 2011 New York Times profile said that "Google is so secretive about the effort that many employees do not even know the lab exists."

It should not surprise, then, that even after a reporter-screening process, Google told me they'd rather not talk about Project Loon. In an email, Google spokeswoman Katelin Jabbari wrote that the team is currently "really heads down working on the technology," and they "don't want people to get tired of hearing about the project just yet."

Likewise, reporting on the morning of July 26 was closely contained. But the outside world could watch guest of honor Lauren Rojas sitting quietly next to a Google intern in the video chat, joined by a few other Google and Maker Camp affiliates, waiting eagerly to see how these things worked. Rigged up with clip-on microphones, the splinter team of Google X employees in Dos Palos gave a tour of the launch site, explaining the technology.

The Loon balloons and their flight-control systems are specially built by Raven Aerostar, which also manufactures balloons for government sponsored Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, run by NASA. The super-pressure balloons' "mission possibilities" (not specific to Project Loon) are listed as: "Scientific data collection, remote communications, GPS augmentation, intelligence gathering, persistent surveillance, reconnaissance, radar calibration, satellite simulation, incremental testing, and research and development of sensors." 


Google's balloons' primary mission might be to deliver Internet service, but it's their aviation technology that is the real innovation. These balloons operate in the stratosphere, 12 miles up. Unlike unmanned weather balloons, they are capable of staying afloat for months, maybe years at a time. Each Loon balloon is about 50 feet wide and 40 feet high, relying solely on helium for lift. The envelope, or "balloon" part of the balloon, is one-tenth of an inch thick polyethylene fabric, lightweight and relatively delicate, but strong enough to withstand the high pressure differential of great altitudes. Google's super-pressure balloons each have dual automatic air vents, which a remote pilot at Google Mission Control uses to control altitude by adjusting outside air levels. Tracking their every move by GPS, Google Mission Control says they can not only make them hover to a certain extent, but effectively navigate the Loons around the globe for weeks on end.

Rich DeVaul, Loon's chief technical architect, explains in an ad, "The stratosphere is different because you can have layers of wind that go in very particular directions, and by moving up and down through these different layers, we can steer." Astro Teller, so-called "captain of moonshots" at the Google, chimes in: "We can sail with the winds, and shape the waves and patterns of these balloons."

Each Loon's payload is a Styrofoam box covered in a reflective Mylar space blanket and some signal lights for safety (bear in mind according to U.S. federal code, balloons have the right-of-way if there's an encounter with any other aircraft). Inside each box is a mini-command center: radio sensors, satellite receivers, and WiFi electronics, along with a stack of custom Google X circuit-boards. These computers measure acceleration, take temperature measurements, run communications between satellite and WiFi networks, and who knows what else. This is how Google Mission Control talks to each Loon and tells it what to do.

Powering it all is a 600-watt battery, charged by solar panels on a carbon fiber frame atop the box. These large, extra-light photovoltaic cells -- amorphous silicon crystals on a fabric substrate -- keep the weight of the balloon low so that the Loons can run for long missions without landing. During the daytime, the batteries charge, and at night they switch on, to vent out excess air and keep the computers running.

Each Loon balloon has three radio frequency antennas (on 2.4 Ghz and 5.8 Ghz bands) and a ground-pointing WiFi antenna, which beams an Internet signal to Earth in a 12-mile radius. And though the balloons are mostly steerable, Google has done a lot of programming to make them work on their own as well; In addition to Mission Control, Google's Loon balloons can talk to each other, and control themselves."We use a distributed mesh network, so each balloon is pretty autonomous and has pretty much the same hardware in it," Sameera Ponda, a lead aerospace engineer at the Dos Palos site that day, said on the video stream. "As one balloon floats over a certain area that balloon is talking to the ground antennas, and as that balloon floats away, another balloon comes in and takes its place, so it's a pretty seamless operation."

In DeVaul's vision, it's a tightly managed, efficient network that only Google can access: "We've designed our radios and antennas to receive signals from Project Loon only, in order to achieve the high bandwidth for the long distances involved. If we didn't filter out the other signals, it just wouldn't work."


It's important to note that the zero-pressure balloon launched from Dos Palos on July 26 was not a Loon balloon. It was a simpler, demo balloon, which only went up for a few hours before shriveling up and falling back to Earth as planned. Google X has been testing the real Loons since at least June, out of sight and mostly overseas, though the July 26 launch marked the beginning of an unknown number of test runs in California's central valley. As of that date, Ponda quoted their longest flight record as 12 days; some of those Loons traveled halfway around the world and landed in Chile and Argentina. They're now shooting for 100-day flights, and eventually the missions could be years long.

When it's time to retrieve any given balloon, Google has a system. "We actually have a fairly sophisticated mission control system," Ponda told the campers, "so we know by GPS where these are at all times." With collection points around the world, Google hopes to be able to rapidly and efficiently recover the Loon balloons. Not that they have all the kinks worked out; word has it they were scooping balloons out of the ocean off the shores of New Zealand in past weeks, and that some were even lost at sea.

Google doesn't share how many Loons are currently flying, or have been launched to date, but the number could easily be in the hundreds. If all goes according to plan, it'll soon be in the thousands. According to Loon field operations manager Paul Acosta, they're considering switching their lift gas from helium to hydrogen, a more abundant lighter-than-air element. Due to their size, each balloon currently devours a dozen 196-cubic-foot cylinders of compressed helium and, as Acosta put it, "there's not really enough helium in the world to sustain what we want to do."

There is a worldwide helium shortage, and Google has plans for a lot of balloons.

A drone by any other name
The word "drone," as it's used loosely around dinner tables, coffee shops and classrooms, has become a hot button. Though it's a convenient word, it's a misappropriation of a military term. The current technical legal terms are unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), and unmanned aircraft system (UAS), which are used somewhat interchangeably. UAS, as set forth in the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, refers to "an unmanned aircraft and associated elements (including communication links and the components that control the unmanned aircraft)." The bill, which reauthorized funding for the FAA, obliged the agency to settle on a body of drone regulations by the end of November, 2015. In the meantime, it made all civilian use of unmanned aircrafts illegal subject to government exceptions.

Unmanned free balloons, in contrast, are regulated by Title 14 Part 101 of the U.S. federal code, which keeps its regulations loose on balloons (only defined as "lighter-than-air aircraft" using buoyancy instead of an engine), as long as they operate safely and above 60,000 feet.

But the Loon balloons should probably fall under unmanned aircraft regulation. The language of the aforementioned FAA bill is clear:

"The term 'unmanned aircraft' means an aircraft that is operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft."

And the FAA's definition of an aircraft obviously includes balloons:

"Aircraft means a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air."

In a regulation report from 2009, the FAA addressed this potential. It ranked each class of aircraft's likelihood of developing as a UAV technology. Balloons were deemed a possibility to keep an eye on. Since then, there's been little discussion of their viability as UAV technology. But even to a non-legal mind, it seems probable that a balloon that can be operated from the ground is a UAV.

Unmanned aircraft systems have a wide range of uses, from crop dusting to the grizzly military operations detailed by Mark Bowden this month. There's no reason to think the Loon will be used for military targeting though. So is it a drone or just a benign, unmanned free balloon? What does it mean if it's both?

One day this will be cleared up; The FAA bill mandates that rules be set for the "safe and effective integration" of UAS into U.S. law. The problem is, the way things are going that's not going to happen any time soon.

In May, John Villasenor, outspoken in the national dialogue on drones, testified before the House Judiciary Committee as to the privacy concerns, legitimate uses, and lack of clear language in current drone law. He knows it's a complicated issue. Villasenor holds positions in UCLA's Public Policy and Electrical Engineering departments, is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and has written about technology for The Atlantic, Forbes, Harvard Journal of Law, Slate and others.

In March of 2012, after the controversial FAA act passed, Villasenor also spoke with NPR's Fresh Air to educate the public about the new laws, or lack thereof. He emphasized the fact that UASs and UAVs take on a wide range of forms:

There are drones that are essentially the size of business jets, and in fact are jet powered and are used by the U.S. military. There are drones that are solar powered, that are very large but extremely light and can fly for months and years at a time at extremely high altitudes; There are drones that can fit literally in the trunk of a car, or in a backpack, or even the palm of a hand... There are drones that are basically like, balloons that sit up there in the sky in one place and can observe for long periods of time enormous swathes of territory.

When I asked him clarify those remarks in the context of the Loon project, Villasenor was reluctant to impose the weighty UAS tag on Google's untested technology. He wrote in an email, "When I said 'basically like, balloons' what I had in mind were aircraft that could stay aloft for very long periods of time (weeks or more), so in that sense had some attributes that in the past we associated only with balloons."

Other experts are less reluctant to define the Google Loon as an unmanned aircraft system. Douglas Marshall is one of a select group currently at work on U.S. drone law. Acting as a subject matter expert for the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Committee, he's forging and recommending rules for what will soon be the body of federal regulations covering all UAS, UAVs, and RPAs. He also holds a position at the University of New Mexico's Physical Science Laboratory, where he and his colleagues have worked on a number of government-contracted projects that serve as the close precedents for Google's Loon, including, coincidentally, the Columbia Balloon Research Facility in Palestine, Texas, for which Raven Aerostar also manufactures super-pressure balloons. Marshall also worked on another high profile drone: a long-endurance, high altitude Boeing project called Vulture (part of the SolarEagle program), which the U.S. government eventually pulled the plug on.

"Yeah, it's an aircraft, and it doesn't have a pilot," Marshall said. "Some people would call that a UAS."

But Marshall is adamant that a 'drone' is a military machine. No matter what you call it, drone or a UAS, private interests cannot fly these crafts over U.S. airspace until the FAA allows it.

"There's no regulation specifically that covers this situation, that's part of the problem," Marshall assures, "There's a lot of effort going on to try to forge regulations that could deal with all the different possibilities to run those systems. And balloons are on the table."


The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is the UN agency that develops aviation standards and procedures used by almost all nations. In their early standards for UAS, they've gone as far as to specifically exclude unmanned free balloons, qualifying balloons as "aircraft which cannot be managed on a real-time basis." But because the Loon can be managed, it would seem to qualify as a UAS by this definition, as well.

As Marshall points out, the lack of regulatory code means that the onboard technology of such an aircraft is unaddressed, at least by the FAA. "The idea of some high-flying device such as an unmanned balloon with powerful imaging technology on board: There's no legal restriction that keep them from doing that."

Within the United States, drone regulations can be sidestepped by a single waiver. And it's quite possible that Google has already been issued a waiver or Certificate of Authorization to operate UAS domestically. Subtitle B of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act is partially what made the bill controversial, providing "Special Rules for Certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems." This simply grants the Secretary of Transportation the authority to determine if "certain" UAS may operate in the national airspace before completion of the comprehensive plan and rulemaking. In July of 2012, only five months after the Act passed, congressional testimony reported that 201 such certificates had been issued to a vague contingent of law enforcement, research institutions, and universities simply called "government entities," and more were being granted.

To receive a waiver or certificate to operate a UAS, there's a straightforward application process, which can be completed online. The FAA will easily issue a certificate of authorization to public agencies and their actors, within some guildelines, but claims that for civilian companies, the experimental airworthiness certificate that can be granted is "very limited in scope of operational use."

A reciprocal government relationship -- even loosely defined -- could easily land Google a waiver, and there's no lack of precedent for that. Google still has a Cooperative Research And Development Agreement (CRADA) on file and works closely with the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration; Google entered into a public-private partnership and 40-year lease with NASA; Google holds a court order keeping its communications with the National Security Agency strictly confidential; the list goes on. All this amounts to an unsurprising absence of barriers when it comes to operating experimental unmanned aircrafts in domestic airspace.

In response to queries about the regulatory status of the project -- and specifically whether Google had received a flight waiver -- Google spokesperson Jabbari simply said, "The laws applicable to high altitude balloon flight differ from country to country and we are working to comply with all applicable laws."

Way above our heads
The extreme height at which Google's Loons can flexibly operate raises a lot of questions. Where will they go? To what jurisdictions are they subject? Who regulates the stratosphere? Are they subject to physical intervention? And what will it mean for the world when Google breaks precedent, and achieves a stable stratospheric communications platform where everyone else has failed?


It's crucial to figure out who controls the open space where Google's Loons fly, and this is more difficult than it would seem. In the U.S., there are four classes of controlled airspace. According to the Code of Federal Regulations, Classes B, C, D, and E are below 10,000 feet, and designed to control lower traffic around airports. Class A covers airspace between 18,000 feet and where flight level begins to max out, around 60,000 feet (roughly 12 miles). Above that is the stratosphere, where Earth's atmosphere gradually dissipates into outer space and the Loon balloons will fly in droves. Though there's no point where space "begins," the Kármán Line (327,360 ft.) has typically served that marker. Between where planes can fly and the Kármán Line, though, there's almost 19 miles of unregulated stratosphere. Though there's been debate, the stratosphere is generally considered airspace.

According to international aviation attorney Jacqueline Serrao, the Loon balloons will have to ask for the permission of every country they fly over. Serrao is the associate director of the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi's law school. She's also a consultant for the governments of Armenia, Kenya, Tanzania, and others, advising their legal concerns on aviation rulemaking. When it comes to convincing sovereign nations to allow their entry, she says that the Loon balloon's unclear capabilities will back Google into a corner.

Countries who abide by the ICAO use their standards to decide if an aircraft will be allowed into airspace. If it is threatening or sub-standard in terms of safety or environmental impact, the country can fall back on the ICAO's rules to not allow that aircraft's presence in its airspace. This means there's a lot more PR work ahead for Project Loon if it's going to play by the UN's rules. Serrao sums up the dilemma, "On one hand, you don't want to be associated with a UAV because of all these issues about privacy, et cetera. On the other hand, you don't want people to think you're just some rogue balloon that's just going to fall out of the sky or something."

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the arm of the UN that helps draft regulations and Internet-related treaties, has not fully addressed the issue of broadband Internet beamed down from a mobile stratospheric network. In the late nineties, when confronted with the possibility for stationary stratospheric platforms, the ITU decided that since those stratospheric platforms in question were supposedly stationary, it was up to sovereign nations to allow or disallow them. Because they couldn't revolve around the Earth like satellites, it wasn't necessary to apply space treaties. So in terms of telecom, the roving potential of Google's Loons is thus unaddressed in the international forum.

It's highly unlikely the ITU wants to take on Google any time soon. The small administrative body was stunned late last year when, as they convened to draft international Internet regulations for the first time in 24 years, Google went on the offensive. Citing censorship and the death of the "free and open Internet" as their enemy, Google organized a systematic, multi-industry press attack. The company ran advertisements, newspaper editorial, and public statements expressing their disgust with the membership of the imminent World Conference on Internet Telecommunications.

"This breed of dinosaurs," Google VP Vint Cerf told Reuters of the ITU, "with their pea-sized brains, hasn't figured out that they are dead yet, because the signal hasn't traveled up their long necks." The UN's attempt to establish regulations on the Internet was portrayed by Google as antiquated, out-of-touch, and ineffectual.

Internationally, it appears Google's Loon Project is stepping on the toes of Big Science, as well. It's no wonder Google began by marketing its Loons to kids instead of high-flying science types. As The Register reported in June, astronomers at the Square Kilometre Array program, which houses galactic research facilities in both Australia and New Zealand, are upset that Google was going ahead without considering its effect on the scientific community. SKA is a widespread, €1.5 billion space research telescope program, run by a consortium of the world's universities and spanning thousands of kilometers across the Southern Hemisphere. But as high-flying radio transmitters go, even one Loon balloon could disrupt its technology.

The broadband signal that Google is sending up into near-space altitudes, which Google is careful to note, are simply "off-the-shelf" electronics, uses a 2.4 Ghz band that could knock the researchers' tools out of use. Register's Richard Chirgwin concludes, "Any interfering signal that's visible to the radio-telescope is a problem -- and that isn't limited by the 40 km footprint Google's balloons will deliver useful signals to. The radio telescopes are so sensitive that even a transmitter low on the horizon, that Google believes is talking to the ground below it, will disrupt the operation of an antenna." UC Berkeley astronomer Brad Tucker, who works in Australia, told Chirgwin he just wants Google to communicate: "It's a good idea, but the radio-astronomy community would like some consultation."

The high-pitched contradiction persists: The stratosphere is ostensibly in sovereign airspace, but for most countries, it is un-policeable. Not only legally, but physically; no one can get high enough to touch it.

The potential for diplomatic tension here is considerable. Currently countries such as China (Google has already proposed using their Loons to bring Internet to underserved parts of Asia) severely censors the Internet and limit access to Google's servers for its citizens. How would they feel if Google cruised into Chinese airspace with a convoy of high-technology balloons? What would Vladimir Putin think if he looked up to see an aircraft run by a U.S. tech giant -- one that occasionally shares data with the NSA, no less -- dangling overhead? What if a few Loons had to take a rest stop over Pyongyang?

Douglas Marshall admits that, at such altitudes as 60,000 feet, Google's Loon balloons are virtually untouchable. There are a few things countries could do to counteract the technology, but not many: "They'd need a missile capable of going up to shoot it down, which they probably don't have. They could try to jam it, with microwave transmissions. They could shoot a laser at it, try to burn it up, there things they could possibly do but... at 120,000 feet I guarantee it's not possible."

Concluding where the law should end
Google is one of the great the repositories of the Internet, the gatekeeper to much of the world's information. Without it we would be remedially jigsawing pieces of the web together, with fewer resources and less powerful connections. There's no evidence that anyone at Google operates with nefarious intent. But that doesn't change the need for regulatory bodies to come to grips with reality, and adjust the boundaries that our most brilliant creators have already surpassed.

Hardly a speck in the blue overhead, 'unmanned free balloons' are the least regulated class of aircraft. With its Project Loon, Google is venturing into not one but two vast open spaces -- the law and the sky.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Will Butler

Will K. Butler is a writer living in Oakland, CA. Follow him on Twitter @willkbutler

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more


Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.


What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world



More in Technology

Just In