By Laura Smith-Spark
Google is preparing to conquer a new dimension: the stratosphere. The Internet giant is releasing 30 high-tech balloons in a trial of technology designed to bring the Internet to places where people are not yet connected.
The balloons are being sent up into the sky from New Zealand's South Island this month in the first trial of a pioneering system dubbed Project Loon.
According to Google, "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 estimates that two-thirds of the global population is without fast, affordable Internet access. So while it sounds like something from the realms of science fiction, if successful, the project could make a difference to many people around the world.
The testers are from Christchurch and parts of Canterbury, New Zealand, and the test balloons will fly around the 40th parallel south, Google says.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key was in Christchurch on Saturday to help unveil the project, according to local media reports. Residents have also been invited to a special event at the local air force museum Sunday to find out more.
Images of a test balloon launch on Google+ show one floating, eerie and translucent, above snow-capped mountains.
Once released, the balloons will float in the stratosphere above 60,000 feet (18,300 meters), twice as high as airplanes and the weather, Google says. Their altitude will be controlled from "Loon Mission Control" using special software to allow them to pick up layers of wind traveling in the right direction and form a balloon network.
If all goes to plan, about 60 people who've had a special antenna fixed on their homes for the trial should be able to connect to the balloon network. The signal will bounce from balloon to balloon, then to the Internet back on Earth. Hundreds of people will be able to connect to one balloon at a time.
The superpressure balloon envelopes, made from sheets of polyethylene plastic, stand nearly 40 feet tall when fully inflated. They are designed to maintain a constant volume and be longer-lasting than weather balloons.
The balloons are equipped with antennas with specialized radio frequency technology, Google says, and each one can provide connectivity to a ground area about 25 miles (40 kilometers) in diameter at speeds comparable to 3G service.
They also carry instruments to monitor weather conditions and allow them to be tracked by GPS, powered by solar panels that will store excess energy for nighttime operation. Each has a parachute in case they need to be brought down.
It will be very difficult to see the balloons with the naked eye, except during launch, Google says.
In any case, it may be a while before would-be Internet users elsewhere start connecting via balloon.
According to the Project Loon website, the technology is still being tested to see if it's viable and what problems would have to be overcome to make it more widely available.