Expanding internet connectivity with stratospheric balloons

Billions of people across the globe still don’t have reliable, affordable access to the internet

The internet has transformed the way the world communicates, does business, learns, governs, and exchanges ideas, but not everyone can harness the benefits and advantages it provides. Right now, 1 of every 2 people worldwide lack access to the internet (Source: International Telecommunications Union). They are completely left out of a digital revolution that could improve their finances, education, and health.

Loon is a radical approach to expanding Internet connectivity. Instead of trying to extend the Internet from the ground, Loon takes to the sky via a network of balloons, traveling along the edge of space, to expand internet connectivity to rural areas, fill coverage gaps, and improve network resilience in the event of a disaster.

A cell tower’s coverage area is limited by the height of its antennas. By lifting these antennas up into the stratosphere, Loon can deliver connectivity over a much larger area.

Loon balloons travel along the edge of space in order to deliver internet to the ground below

Building a balloon that lasts

The Loon team needed to design a balloon that could last for 100+ days in the stratosphere in order to deliver consistent connectivity. But, how do you test and design something that spends so much time in harsh conditions 20 kilometers in the air?

To see the stratospheric effect on the balloons, the team brings the stratosphere down to earth by testing the balloons in a giant hanger that simulates sub-zero temperatures, high-speed winds, rains, and snow. The team also closely inspects each balloon with everything from mass spectrometers to soap bubbles in order to find the smallest leaks.

Launching the balloons

Launching balloons that have never existed before posed a problem for the team: how do you get a lot of these balloons in the air quickly? To safely and reliably get the balloons up and operational, the team designed and custom-built Autolaunchers — large cranes capable of filling and launching a balloon every 30 minutes into the stratosphere, above airplanes, birds, and the weather.

The Loon team's custom-built Autolauncher

Navigating the stratosphere

Winds in the stratosphere are stratified, which means they’re comprised of layers that travel in different directions and speeds. While one layer may cause the balloon to drift far from its target location, another nearby layer might allow the balloon to blow in the right direction. One of the original insights for the Loon team was to move the balloons up or down into helpful wind patterns to allow the balloons to sail with the winds, rather than fly against them. This “go-with-the-flow” technique allows the balloons to quickly and efficiently get in the right spot.

To identify these helpful wind patterns, Loon uses advanced predictive models to create maps of the skies. The maps allow the team to determine the wind speed and direction at each altitude, time, and location. With these maps in place, the team then developed smart algorithms to help determine the most effective combination of stratospheric paths. With the aid of these algorithms, the balloons can accurately sail the winds over thousands of kilometers to get where they need to go and then manipulate wind paths to remain clustered around those destinations.

A hardware engineer inspects communications equipment at an operations site in Puerto Rico

The Loon balloon

While in the stratosphere, balloons can encounter 150°C temperature swings, with temperatures reaching as low as -90°C.
Each tennis court-sized, polyethylene balloon is built to survive for more than 100 days in the stratosphere’s harsh conditions.
Changing the airflow into a smaller inner balloon — the ballonet — causes the balloon to change altitude.

Expanding internet coverage

Solar panels power the equipment during the day and charge an onboard battery for nighttime operation.
Contains the brains of the system for command and control of the balloon.
An onboard parachute allows for a controlled descent and landing.
A high-speed internet signal is relayed across the balloon network and then sent to users on the ground.

Connecting the unconnected

Loon is delivering connectivity to communities that are underserved or where the communications infrastructure has been damaged or wiped out. In 2017, Loon partnered with Telefonica to provide basic internet connectivity to tens of thousands of people across Peru who were displaced due to extreme rains and flooding. The Loon team also worked closely with AT&T and T-Mobile to bring the internet to more than 200,00 people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria made landfall. In 2020, Loon began delivering commercial service in Africa.