Loon sails through the stratosphere, where there are different wind
layers. Using wind data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA), the balloons are maneuvered by identifying the
wind layer with the desired speed and direction and then adjusting
altitude to float in that layer. Photo: Jon Shenk
Only when the men returned the next day did they reveal what they were up to. Inside the red ball was an antenna that would give the MacKenzies Internet access. It was custom-designed to communicate with a similar antenna that would be floating by in the stratosphere, over 60,000 feet above sea level. On a solar-powered balloon.
Oh, and the men work for Google.
“It sounded crazy,” says MacKenzie, who bears a slight resemblance to the actor Colm Meaney. “But at the end of the day, you hope things will work out.”
The idea does sound crazy, even for Google—so much so that the company has dubbed it Project Loon. But if all works according to the company’s grand vision, hundreds, even thousands, of high-pressure balloons circling the earth could provide Internet to a significant chunk of the world’s 5 billion unconnected souls, enriching their lives with vital news, precious educational materials, lifesaving health information, and images of grumpy cats.
It is an audacious proposal, and today in Christchurch, Google is holding a press conference with New Zealand’s prime minister to formally unveil it. Google will also stage Project Loon’s biggest trial yet: 50 testers in Christchurch within the 12-mile range of the balloons will see if they can get connected from the sky.
But on the morning of June 13, 2013, the MacKenzies were waiting to be among the first to sample it.
Project Loon began a little under two years ago, incubating in Google’s high-risk research arm, Google X. Rich DeVaul, an expert in wearable technology (his MIT dissertation was on “Memory Glasses”), had recently arrived from a secretive post at Apple to become a “rapid evaluator.” His job assignment was to consider crazy ideas that just might work, and find reasons why they definitely would not work. “Our goal at Google X is to kill a project as fast as we can,” says Astro Teller, who runs the lab with Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
At first, providing reliable Internet access using balloons seemed a natural candidate for a quick rejection. There were a number of obvious problems, many of them involving the limits of ballooning, a centuries-old craft that still retained deep mysteries. No one had managed to maintain control and power for the long-duration flights that Google would need.
DeVaul, though, had an idea for “variable buoyancy”—steering the balloons by tweaking altitude to find wind currents whooshing in the right direction. Google, which is pretty good at computation, could use the voluminous government data available to accurately simulate wind currents in the stratosphere. After weeks of spreadsheeting, unsuccessfully trying to find a flaw in the scheme, DeVaul felt confident enough to pitch the project.
“My colleagues had to believe I wasn’t completely on crack, which took a little bit of convincing,” he says.
In August 2011, DeVaul began a series of trial runs in California’s Central Valley. He and some colleagues would launch a hand-made balloon with a Linux computer and some antennas on board, then hop into his Subaru Forester. They’d race on rural roads to capture the signal before the rig went down—or floated towards distant points east. Most flights were failures of some sort. None of the balloon terminations, however, gave DeVaul a reason to kill the project, no matter how hard he tried. “It was really impressive how long he carried that goal of killing the idea,” says Astro Teller.
By early 2012, the experiment had gained status of a genuine Google X project. It also had a new leader. DeVaul, preferring to work on tech rather than management, helped hire a project leader, Mike Cassidy, a top search engineer who had started multiple companies before joining Google. Cassidy built up the team with network engineers, mapping specialists, energy experts, and ex-military operatives who were stunningly good at recovering downed payloads in wilderness terrain. (When balloons would go down, the payload would separate and glide earthward by parachute. Civilians stumbling on the scary-looking package would see a non-branded message reading HARMLESS SCIENCE EXPERIMENT, and a promise of a reward for those who called a number to return it.) When it became clear that Google needed many more balloons that its small team was able to hand-craft, Cassidy began a fruitful collaboration with Raven Aerostar, the company that makes weather balloons for NASA and created the monster bubble that took Felix Baumgartner into near space for his record leap earthward.
Soon, Project Loon was ready to attain the rare status of an initiative officially acknowledged as part of Google X (along with self-driving cars and Google Glass). This announcement would come at a big press conference following a trial where the company attempted to give Internet access to real people, not just Google testers.
And, in part to avoid flyovers invading potentially hostile nations, Google decided to do this in a distant land with huge swaths of rural inhabitants who yearned for broadband: New Zealand.