How will the Google Loon 4G network work

Written By: Beth Nyaga
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Photo Courtesy www.loon.com

Loon is a network of balloons travelling on the edge of space, delivering connectivity to people in unserved and underserved communities around the world.

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It has taken the most essential components of a cell tower and redesigned them to be light and durable enough to be carried by a balloon 20 km up, on the edge of space.

Loon balloons are designed and manufactured to endure the harsh conditions in the stratosphere, where winds can blow over 100 km/hr, and temperatures can drop as low as -90° C.

Loon in partnership with Telkom will pilot an innovative new 4G/LTE access network service in Kenya. This will be Loon’s first commercial service in Africa.

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How will the Google Loon 4G network work
Photo Courtesy www.loon.com

The Loon service is an innovative approach to providing extended 4G/LTE coverage to rural and suburban areas with lower population densities, using high altitude balloons operating 20 kilometres (60,000 feet) above sea level, well above air traffic, wildlife, and weather events.

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The balloons act as floating cell towers, transmitting a provider’s service – in this case, Telkom’s service – directly to a subscriber’s existing 4G/LTE phone below. Loon’s equipment is powered by onboard solar panels.

How will the Google Loon 4G network work
Photo Courtesy www.loon.com

Loon has flown over 30 million km of test flights to date since the project began – with one of the balloons breaking a record by surviving for 198 days aloft in the stratosphere.

The company simulates 30 million kilometres of potential navigation daily to better understand how jet streams and weather patterns will impact balloon routes.

How It Works

High-speed internet is transmitted up to the nearest balloon from the telecommunications partner (in this case, Telkom) on the ground, relayed across the balloon network, and then back down to users on the ground.

Loon’s greater coverage area enables mobile network operators to expand their coverage where it is needed.

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Loon transmits an operator’s signal from connection points on the ground, beams it across multiple balloons in the stratosphere, and then sends that signal back to a user’s LTE device.

The entire network can function autonomously, efficiently routing connectivity across balloons and ground stations while taking into account balloon motion, obstructions, and weather events.

Photo Courtesy www.loon.com

Loon has demonstrated data transmission between balloons over 100 km apart in the stratosphere and back down to people on the ground with connection speeds of up to 10 Mbps, directly to their LTE phones.

Launching Loon

The custom-built Autolaunchers are designed to launch Loon balloons safely and reliably at scale.

Side panels protect the balloon from the wind as it is filled with lift gas and positioned for launch.

The crane points downwind to smoothly release the Loon balloon up into the stratosphere.

Each crane is capable of launching a new balloon into the Loon network every 30 minutes.

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Photo Courtesy www.loon.com

 

Landing and recovery

Loon maintains continuous telemetry and command links with every balloon, tracking the location using GPS.

When a balloon is ready to be taken out of service, the lift gas keeping the balloon aloft is released and the parachute automatically deploys to control the landing.

Descents are coordinated with local air traffic control to land the balloon safely in a sparsely populated area. Ground recovery teams then collect the equipment for reuse and recycling.

Post-flight analysis

Once recovered, balloons are laid out on a giant scanner in the Loon lab to be inspected for microscopic holes and tears.

This process paints a picture of how our balloons react to conditions in the stratosphere.

Conducting this analysis provides insights to inform our design choices, enabling the team to develop balloons capable of increasingly longer flight durations.

 

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