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.
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Google

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." 

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Google

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.

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Will Butler

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

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