What is Loon?
Loon’s mission is to connect people everywhere by inventing and integrating audacious technologies. By redesigning the essential components of a cell tower so they can be carried by balloon 20 kilometres above Earth, Loon makes it possible to extend internet access to the billions who currently lack it. Using a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, Loon works with mobile network operators to expand their coverage to unserved and underserved communities, supplement existing networks, and provide expedient coverage after natural disasters. To date, Loon’s balloons have travelled more than 30 million kilometers around the world. Loon is a subsidiary of Alphabet.
How is the end-user able to access this “balloon-powered” internet?
Because Loon’s balloons are essentially floating cell towers, an end-user will access the internet in much the same way s/he would connect to the mobile internet using a smartphone. A customer will not necessarily know they are connected to a Loon balloon, aside from the fact that they may receive a signal in a location where one did not previously exist. A customer needs to have a sim card of the mobile network operator that is partnering with Loon and an LTE-enabled smartphone. No additional special equipment is required. Loon is not an internet Service Provider.
Where is Loon planning to provide internet access?
Loon is focused on bringing connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world. We are in discussions with telecommunications companies and governments worldwide to provide a solution to help extend internet connectivity to these underserved areas.
What steps is Loon taking to be environmentally responsible?
We are taking several steps to ensure Loon is environmentally responsible: We're working to guide all balloons to landing zones upon descent, so we can reuse, recycle, or responsibly dispose of their parts. Our balloon equipment is entirely solar powered. We are working to make our stratospheric wind data available to the environmental science community so it can be used to improve weather and climate models. Contact us for more information about working together.
Are the balloons stationary?
No. A group of Loon balloons creates a network that provides connectivity to people in a defined area in the same way a group of towers on the ground forms a terrestrial network. The difference is our towers are constantly moving with the winds. Our system is constantly learning to improve the choreography of the balloons, which improves the quality of the network.
How high do the balloons fly?
We are flying in the stratosphere well above commercial air traffic and weather events, at around 18 - 23 km or 60,000 - 75,000 feet.
How long will a balloon stay up in the air?
We've created a balloon design that can reliably last for more than 100 days in the stratosphere.
How do you deal with the extreme conditions in the stratosphere?
Situated on the edge of space, between 10 km and 60 km in altitude, the stratosphere presents unique engineering challenges: high in the stratosphere the air pressure is 1% that at sea level, and this thin atmosphere offers little protection from UV radiation and dramatic temperature swings, which can reach -90 degrees celsius. By carefully designing the balloon envelope to withstand these conditions, Loon is able to take advantage of the stratosphere's steady winds and remain well above weather events, wildlife, and airplanes.
How is the movement of these balloons controlled?
The positioning of the Loon fleet is adjusted and controlled in real-time from Loon Mission Control, using a combination of automatic planning algorithms and human oversight.
How will the balloons come down?
When a balloon is ready to be taken out of service, the lift gas is released from the balloon and the parachute deploys automatically. The Loon team tracks the balloon location using GPS and coordinates directly with the local air traffic control to bring the balloon safely to the ground in sparsely populated areas.
How do you collect the balloons after they have landed?
We land Loon balloons in sparsely populated and accessible areas. The Loon team includes recovery specialists who collect landed balloons. We track our balloons continuously using GPS, and so once we have worked with air traffic control to bring the balloons to land, the recovery team will be on their way to collect the equipment for reuse, recycling, or responsible disposal.
Is there a risk of airplanes hitting the balloons?
At their floating altitude of 18 - 23 km (60,000 - 75,000 feet), Loon balloons fly well above commercial jetliners, so they are well out of the way. Each balloon is equipped with a transponder that constantly transmits is position and altitude to air-traffic control. We always coordinate directly with local air-traffic control when balloons are launched, throughout their flight, and when they descend.
Is it possible to see the balloons from the ground?
In certain weather conditions it may be possible to see a Loon balloon from the ground as a small white dot in the sky. Most of the time they will be very difficult to see with the naked eye.
Do you need permission to fly these Balloons?
Loon meets or exceeds the international standards for unmanned free balloons set by the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). These standards form the basis for many countries’ regulations around the world. While specific regulations differ from country to country, we comply with all applicable international and local laws as required in locations where we operate.
Can Loon fly internationally?
Yes the balloons fly internationally. The United Nations has endorsed programs which are consistent with the UN Sustainability and Development Goals which seek to improve the lives of everyday citizens. ICAO is the aviation arm of the UN, and has provided technical and procedural information to all 191 ICAO countries, encouraging these countries to allow Loon to overfly their territories. We work with countries that the balloons fly over, verifying that Loon meets or exceeds regulatory compliance. Safety is a top priority, and Loon will be one of the first upper airspace operators to put an internationally recognized Safety Management System in place, ensuring continuous safety improvement day in and day out.
Are there other balloons like those used by Loon?
Loon is pioneering the use of high-altitude balloons to provide internet connectivity below, making significant advancements in balloon science and engineering along the way. Although not quite the same, there is a precedent for high-altitude balloon flights, with approximately 70,000 weather balloons launched every year. However, weather balloons reach a certain height before they burst, whereas Loon balloons are designed to stay aloft in the stratosphere for over 100 days at a time, and be brought back to the ground in a controlled and coordinated manner. There are balloons used by other organizations to collect environmental and other data useful to the scientific community.
What communication equipment is on a balloon?
There are two main radio transceivers on each balloon: a broad-coverage LTE base station (or “eNodeB”), which transmits internet connectivity directly to a user’s LTE-enabled phone, and a high-speed directional link used to connect between balloons and back down to the internet infrastructure on the ground.
How fast is balloon-powered internet?
In user tests, we have observed Internet speeds similar to that of current LTE/4G networks that many people get on their phones today.
How many people can one balloon serve?
Each balloon can provide coverage to a ground area about 80 km in diameter, and with our current design a single balloon can serve thousands of subscribers.
How do you preserve the security and integrity of data transmitted over the Loon network?
Data is automatically encrypted while transiting the balloon network. We integrate with the core networks of our mobile network operator partner so data transmitted will have the same levels of encryption and authentication as those networks.
What electronics are on the balloon?
In addition to the specialized radios that provide Internet service to users on the ground, Loon balloons carry instruments to monitor the weather and ambient environmental conditions as well as GPS units to keep track of their flight patterns and an aviation transponder to report the balloons position to air traffic control. The electronics are powered by solar panels, and excess power is stored in a rechargeable battery so operations can continue through the night.
How are the balloons powered?
The equipment on the balloons is powered by solar panels during the day and a rechargeable battery during the night.
Will the balloons have cameras or capture any imagery of the ground?
For all test and production flights outside of the US, there are never any cameras on board. On certain test flights operating within the United States only, we use cameras facing upwards to observe how various components of the balloon are functioning at high altitude.
Which telecommunications companies are you working with?
Loon has conducted connectivity tests with Vodafone in New Zealand, Telefonica in Peru and Brazil, and Telstra in Australia. Loon provided service in Puerto Rico in 2017 in partnership with AT&T and T-Mobile after Hurricane Maria. We recently started an engagement with Telkom Kenya to expand their network in Kenya.
What kind of Spectrum will be used?
Loon uses our partner’s LTE spectrum to provide service directly to their customers’ smartphones. The system is designed to allow the customer to transparently access their mobile network provider’s network.
Does Loon interfere with current LTE networks?
Loon works with mobile network operators in each country we operate to share and coordinate use of LTE spectrum. The coverage provided through Loon coexists with the cell tower coverage of our partner network operator. Loon works closely with the partner network operator to optimize on the radio parameters and implement interference mitigation strategies along with Loon’s Self Optimizing Network (SON) solution.
I'm interested in working with Loon. How can I participate?
We're looking for collaborators who share our goal of bringing connectivity to rural and remote areas. View open positions.