Wednesday, August 14th, 2013
In June 2013 Google staged the first test of a pilot project aimed at bringing high-speed wireless Internet access to rural, remote or underserved parts of the world. Project Loon, as Google named it, exemplifies the outside-the-box thinking that seems to go with the Google brand. Think of plastic Balloons carrying communications hardware and software, powered by solar panels hanging below them, circling the earth at an altitude of about 66,000 ft. (20+ km) and providing Internet access from the planet’s surface, no matter how remote the location.
Outside the box, yes, but Google aims to have everyone on earth able to use the Internet, regardless of their location.
Google can supply the communications gear, both hardware and software, but not the balloons, especially balloons up to the task. But the Raven Aerostar division of Raven Industries (both in Sioux Falls, SD), which has been on the cutting edge of lighter than air technology for nearly 60 years can. We can assume Google had no problem searching for them.
Remember Felix Baumgartner’s jump to earth from the edge of space last year? Raven Aerostar made the balloon that carried his capsule to an altitude of 128,000 ft. (39 km).
The trials that were done by Google and Raven from near Christchurch, New Zealand went very well. About 25 balloons were flown in four to five days, and both the balloons and the communications technology were reported to have worked very well.
The Super Pressure Balloons Raven Aerostar made for the trial run of Project Loon are pumpkin-shaped, 60 ft. high and 60 ft. in diameter. Since they would carry 30,000 pounds of pressure, cruise at 67,000 feet altitude and be in temperatures between -60ºC and -80ºC, they must be made of an exceptional material. The material is only three mils thick—0.003 inch, yet it is strong enough to allow pressure changes that occur through the diurnal cycle to enable a more constant altitude for a longer time. You can see through it, yet it aims to survive at 67,000 feet for about 100 days before being controlled back to earth and replaced by another balloon.
This high performance material supplied by Raven Engineered Films, also located in Raven’s 330,000-square-foot facility in Sioux Falls, is none other than polyethylene (PE), the same polymer used to make bread wrappers and the lightweight plastic bags used to carry groceries home from the store. However, though it may be the same basic polymer, the polyethylene Raven uses to make its Super Pressure Balloons is formulated and the film is manufactured specifically for the balloon’s extreme operating environment. It is an outstanding example of the versatility of what is generally referred to as a commodity plastic.
The pilot test of Project Loon held in June marks the start of a cooperative development process between Google and Raven, and it’s a promising start for a creative approach to bringing broadband Internet access to remote and developing parts of the world. An impressive description of Project Loon is available on Google’s website.