“Many of us think of the Internet as a global community. But two-thirds of the world's population does not yet have Internet access. Project Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters.”
Google is determined in its attention to bring internet to the furthest parts of our planet. One of the projects of its Google X division is to address this issue by launching thousands of drones into atmosphere to serve as moving routers, helping fill coverage gaps, connecting people in rural and remote areas, helping develop their small businesses, bringing good healthcare to the places where it is unavailable, bring people back online after disasters, and many other things.
Saying that “everyone’s online nowadays” couldn't be farther from truth. In some areas, for every person who has internet access, there are two people who do not, with this ratio raising to 1:100, or even 1:1000 in highly undeveloped areas. There are some regions which have no access to Internet at all. With Loon, Google is now looking into resolving the issue.
Loon balloons look almost like all the other balloons, with all the equipment stored in the metal box beneath the inflated part. It took 22 days for a balloon to make one lap around the planet, score which ended up beating Google’s own estimates by ten days. The balloons are of course very dependable on the wind flow around the planet. With all the benefits, having drones flying around brings several dangers as well, with a major danger being the fall of one of these drones into a populated area.
The project has introduced some geopolitical issues as well. Iain McClatchie, an aerospace engineer who formerly worked on drone projects for Google said said at one occasion that "whatever goes into China’s airspace is going to end up on the ground." China is probably not the only country that will not be fully open to the idea of having cameras flying over its space.
Is there any competition? Well, there used to be. Google recently (April 14, 2014) purchased Titan Aerospace, drone startup company specialized in building solar drones which can fly for years without landing while constantly broadcasting. Interesting thing is that another company that was interested in purchasing the drone maker (for $60 million) was Facebook itself, which also has plans for bringing the web to low-income countries through air and space technologies. Instead, Facebook ended up buying UK-based Ascenta. How is Google going to use its newly purchased technology is still unclear. In the table below, you can see the differences between “the balloon” and Titan drone:
Is “Internet for All” the only goal Google is trying to reach? Of course not! For a while now, Google has been looking to expand its imagery capabilities with the purpose of improving their Google Earth and Google Maps products. Instead of paying for sending a number of imaging satellites in Earth’s orbit, having a small fleet of drones in the upper stratosphere is already proving to be a far cheaper solution.