Internet-providing aircraft goes into commercial operation

Loon Internet Baloon

Loon, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, said Tuesday that it launched the first commercial deployment of its internet providing baloons.

The fleet of high-flying balloons were launched over Kenya to beam internet signals down to the country’s population. Prior to this, the technology has been tested only in emergency situations, including Puerto Rico in 2017 following the passage of Hurricane Maria which devastated the island.

Loon’s partnership with the wireless company Telkom Kenya makes it the first deployment in Africa, the most underserved region in the world when it comes to internet access. 

Almost three dozen balloons were launched over Kenya to blanket more than 30,000 square miles of the country. They will fly about 60,000 feet in the air, acting like floating cellular towers, to send 4G LTE signals down to the ground.

Loon was born out of X, Alphabet’s self-described moonshot factory for experimental projects, which has also developed the company’s driverless car and delivery drone services. Loon, which debuted in 2015, was spun out into its own division two years ago. 

In January 2018, two of Loon’s high-altitude balloons were spotted flying over Guyana. Director-General of the Guyana Civil Aviation (GCAA), Retired Lt. Col. Egbert Field said back then that they were launched from Puerto Rico and were flying at around 58,000 feet. While the authority was aware of them, he assured that there was no risk involved.

According to Field, “the balloons are pretty harmless and they do not have any engines on them; it is maneuvered strictly by how the wind flows…Because you have winds blowing in different directions, they utilize the flow of the wind at a lower or higher altitude.”

Loon flies its balloons between altitudes of 18 km and 25 km where there is minimal turbulence and at speeds between 5 and 20 mph.

The latitudinal and longitudinal position of the balloons are controlled by adjusting the volume and density of internal gas (which is composed of either helium, hydrogen or another lighter-than-air-compound).

The tennis court-sized balloons are made from sheets of polyethylene and last for over 100 days before returning back on Earth. To land the baloons, they are navigated in coordination with air traffic control to remote areas where they decsend at low speed and with the aid of parachutes.