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Envelope internet: Google's Project Loon balloons can now hover in place

Google’s Project Loon might sound “loony” when you first hear about it, but the idea of using balloons to provide internet access to various parts of the world is gathering traction. Utilizing air currents for essentially free transport, Google has developed a system for delivering balloons to key areas that need additional coverage.

How to affordably provide internet access to remote rural regions has been a challenge for many countries around the world, the United States included. Google’s solution uses balloons fitted with solar panels and transceivers to provide an internet broadcast station that uses natural air currents to travel around the U.S. Its latest innovation, however has allowed them to stay near stationary, using those same air currents.

Typically Google’s Project Loon required a consistent stream of balloons in order to provide internet access to an area. Once the balloons moved out of range, they stopped being useful to any one community, so another needed to come along on a regular basis to maintain that connection. That’s not the case anymore, though.

This navigational update to Loon uses the same air currents to keep balloons clustered in a certain area. This not only has the potential to offer internet access to far-flung communities, but could mean Google’s system could be used to provide wireless internet access in disaster-hit areas, or to ease load when capacity of existing networks is reached.

With balloons able to remain airborne for up to 190 days, making them reactive to ongoing trends rather than simply requiring a massive fleet makes the technology far more useful and economically viable. If Google can have the balloons provide viable internet access to those in need for a greater proportion of the balloons’ “up time” then it’s far more useful than having them simply rotating through and helping out for only a short period of time while the wind is right.

Although the end goal for many tech organizations is to provide worldwide, satellite-based internet access, Project Loon is an effective middle ground that is far cheaper to orchestrate and maintain.

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