France's space agency has teamed up with Google's Project Loon, the search engine company's project to deploy high-altitude balloons to deliver Internet access to underserved parts of the world. The partnership will provide Google with insights from the space agency's years of balloon engineering experience.
"This project comes at just the right time as we seek ways to bring the Internet to underserved areas," said Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES), in the announcement last Thursday. "Collaborations like this bring down barriers and spawn new cross-disciplinary projects. We are proud to be providing our expertise while benefiting in return from the assistance of such a great global company."
In return for providing Google with its knowledge and expertise in high-altitude balloons, CNES will get help from Google in conducting long-duration balloon campaigns. These include such efforts as the Concordiasi program, in which CNES conducted climate research by deploying dropsonde and driftsonde balloons to record weather data over Antarctica.
Meet Project Loon
Launched in 2013, Project Loon -- given that name for the far-out nature of its goals -- is one of several initiatives being undertaken by the Google X innovation lab. Among the lab's other projects are the Google Glass Internet-connected eyewear, the driverless and the Project Wing plan for using drones for delivery services.
Project Loon envisions the use of a network of balloons in the stratosphere, high above any possible interference from weather or commercial aircraft, to transmit Internet data to antennas or LTE-enabled phones on the ground. Having already flown more than 3 million kilometers (1,860,000 miles) in testing, the Google balloons would support connection speeds fast enough to stream online videos.
Such a network of balloons, powered by solar panels, would be much cheaper to deploy than other Internet technologies such as wire, fiber or satellite, according to Google. That would significantly reduce the cost of bringing online access to billions of people who currently don't have it, the company believes.
Target: 4 Billion Underserved
"Internet connectivity can improve lives, but more than 4 billion people still don't have access today," said Mike Cassidy, Google vice president in charge of Project Loon. "No e solution can solve such a big, complex problem. That's why we're working with experts from all over the world, such as CNES, to invest in new technologies like Project Loon that can use the winds to provide Internet to rural and remote places."
Since it's begun testing the high-altitude balloons, which float around 12 miles above the Earth's surface, Google says it has been able to improve the durability of those systems by a factor of 10. The record lifespan of a Loon balloon so far is 134 days.
That record-breaking balloon -- dubbed the Marathoner -- was launched from New Zealand this past July and eventually landed in Chile. Another balloon named Global Traveller was guided over 23 countries across South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania before being brought down to the ground. Google says it has also achieved improved performance in speed -- up to 200 mph for the Sprint Star -- and endurance (the Frosty Survivor encountered temperatures of -117 degrees Fahrenheit while traveling over the Chile/Argentine border).
Google has also developed autofill equipment that allows it to launch more balloons in less time than when it first started on the project. As of last month, it was able to launch as many as 20 balloons per day, according to the Project Loon page on Google+.
Image credit: Alphabet X Company/Project Loon website.