The latest project to come out of the top secret Google X lab the same folks who brought us Google Glass just launched in New Zealand, and unlike their previous projects, it's totally useful and philanthropic. It's called Project Loon, and it involves huge weather balloon things floated 12 miles over the earth that can beam Internet connectivity to parts of the world that don't have it.
The balloons, which as the AP reports are elongated, jellyfish-like things, fifteen meters across and filled with helium, with solar-panels and antennae hanging below them. They fly twice as high as aircraft and are able to transmit an Internet signal down to an area of 780 square miles. The plan is to launch chains of the balloons in order to create a consistent signal across huge swaths of land in the developing world.
The first testing ground for the service was near Christchurch, New Zealand, an area chosen in part because in 2011, after an earthquake that killed 185 people, many residents lost the internet for weeks afterward. And being able to quickly restore connectivity following disasters like that one, in the interest of human safety, has been a priority of nonprofit groups for years now.
As Rich DeVaul, the chief technical architect behind the project explains, "Many people don't realize this, but the majority of the world is not connected to the internet. How do we get cost-effective, inexpensive, and reliable connectivity to the remaining five or six billion people who don't have it?"
The long-term feasibility of balloon-powered internet remains to be seen, but it's a promising project with a broad range of potential uses. And just listen to Charles Nimmo, the New Zealand sheep farmer who was the first person to receive fifteen minutes of internet from one of the balloons last week, which he immediately used to check the weather to see if it was a good time to start shearing wool from around his sheep's butts. "It's been weird," Nimmo says. "But it's been exciting to be part of something new."
Amusing sidenote: Before launching this beta test in New Zealand, Google did some secret testing in California's Central Valley over the last year, prompting a number of "UFO" sightings, including, probably, this one in Fresno last July.