Release the Google Internet Balloons! – Stuck in Customs

Release the Google Internet Balloons!

4 AM, a week ago…

I get a strange email from Google. Just sign the paperwork they say. We can’t tell you anything. I sign, assuming it’s gotta be cool with an approach like that.

Fast Forward One Week

Next thing I knew, I was up in a helicopter over Tekapo, New Zealand, sitting by Steven Levy from Wired magazine tracking balloons as they headed for the stratosphere. I was just a few hours north of my home in Queenstown, so I was excited to check out this secret Google X project right in my own backyard!

So, here’s the whole story. I’ll start with a video I shot with Google Glass that shows some of the behind-the-scenes. Can’t see it in your country? Here’s the Vimeo version.

(Note, there is the Longer Video coming soon that has a lot of the tech talk and geeky stuff if you want to know more.)

Google Internet Balloons

Here is beautiful Tekapo, NZ. The water is that wondrous color from all the fresh glacial melt.

So, what’s the reason for all this? Well, there are billions of people on Earth without Internet. Billions! What’s a crazy (loon-y) idea to get them Internet? Step in Project Loon from Google X and Rich DeVaul. What’s the net result of it all? You can see the little white dot-balloon in the photo bellow on the left floating over New Zealand.

Google Internet Balloons

The Internet floats over New Zealand. Another Google Loon Balloon makes its way towards the stratosphere, spreading Internet like ambrosia dripping from Mount Olympus. We soared up vertically over the mountains, spiraling up to track the balloons. I had great trouble spotting the balloon from the chopper! But there, you can see a little white dot there on the left in the sky. It's not like one of those giant hot-air balloons. It's more like a tiny weather balloon.

New Zealand was a perfect test bed because even though we have only 4 million people, 1 million of us don’t even have Internet. Or, if we have it, it’s crazy-expensive. We even visited one farmer (Charles) who said that he had to pay $1400 for ONE month of satellite-Internet. Crazy!

So, imagine a network, a mesh of balloons that spin around the earth, effortlessly handing off Internet from one balloon to the next, just like the way you hand off phone service from one tower to the next as you drive. You can see more about the tech on Google’s Project Loon site.

Google Internet Balloons

Inside the secret Google warehouse... somewhere in New Zealand. By the way, this place is very cold and full of things that you should not touch.

Anyhoo, I was invited along to take photos. Google was nice enough to even officially license a few photos (thanks!). No, they didn’t pay me to write a nice article. I’m just kind of a Google fan. Stephen Levy and Wired liked some of the more special photos too, so you can see even more in Stephen’s article (Wired magazine). Man, he’s a cool guy. You really get to know a dude when you’re ripping through the New Zealand mountains with these crazy Kiwi pilots!

After watching the flawless launch on a chilly morning, we ended up taking a chopper to a remote farm. There were a lot of choppers. It was kind of like Apocalypse Google Now.

Google Internet Balloons

We exit one of the choppers to go check the Internet on this farm. You can see the pilot running off with all my camera gear on his back.

We landed and jumped off to go try out the Internet. Again, flawless. I can only assume they had a few failed tests beforehand… they must have been working on this for a long time. But man, it was smooth. The family was super excited. They were on, which is the eBay of New Zealand. The husband was looking for a new truck… his wife was not thrilled.

The balloons worked perfectly. Raven Aerostar is the company that is behind the balloons; they are Google’s design partner for Project Loon. They make balloons for NASA and stuff, so they are pretty hardcore.

Google Internet Balloons

Rich talks with one of the tester families. You can see the friendly red Google antenna above and the Loon balloon over there on the right (the tiny white spot!)

At lunch, the creator of the project, Rich DeVaul, told us a funny story. I don’t even know if I can repeat it, but I will. It seems innocuous enough. BTW, I’m not a real journalist or anything. I’m just a guy that takes photos and likes stories.

[Queue Radiolab soundeffects] Rich is tearing down a highway in central California. He’s in his own car. There are other Google people in there, and they are peering upwards and out the window like tornado chasers. They have radio antennae, laptops, and all kinds of crazy Google equipment as they try to track a balloon. At some point, they overload his alternator and they come to an unceremonious stop. They are stranded.

Rich has to call his wife to pick them up. She’s been in the dark for years about this project, and he hasn’t told her anything. She drives hours and hours to pick them up. He fills up her car with nerds and equipment and they sit there silently, ignoring the Fringe/X-Files nonsense that is happening in the backseat. His lips form a line as he looks side to side innocently. I’m not sure if that look actually happened, but it probably did.

I heard she’s here at this press conference that’s happening right now in Christchurch. So now she knows everything; She’s probably quite proud of him!

Google Internet Balloons

More balloons are lined up and ready for launch as a chopper lands behind.

And, by the way, if you are here in New Zealand in Christchurch, come see me at the Festival of Flight at the Air Force Museum on Sunday! The Project Loon event is from 10am-2pm on Sunday June 16th. There will be a lot about balloon science and stuff like that… bring the family! Here’s a map.

Anyway, hats off to all the engineers and team members. It’s a cool project. It’s all quite early, of course, but if they can keep iterating, it will be a really cool option to get Internet everywhere. I can see remote villages in Africa having one of those red-ballooned antennas. I can see it forcing competitive local Internet services in SE Asia to provide cheaper service and no data caps (the same way Google Fiber is disrupting competitive services). I can see myself putting one of those antenna on my truck so I have Internet no matter where I travel in New Zealand to take photos. Man, I can’t wait!

A Photo-Essay of the launch

Here’s a few other photos. Or, there’s a whole album on Google+ – enjoy!

Google Internet Balloons

The Loon Balloon rests off-stage in secret, waiting for the curtain to drop!

Google Internet Balloons

We make a multi-G turn in the mountains, turning the chopper almost totally on its side to chase the balloon.

Google Internet Balloons

Inside the Google X NZ Warehouse, the overall plan is described in a chalk talk.

Google Internet Balloons

One of the tester families somewhere in Central Otago, New Zealand, below their friendly Google antenna. That's their old satellite dish there beside it where they once had to pay $1400 for a month!

Google Internet Balloons

Rich describes the launch WHILE the launch is happening right behind him at the Tekapo airport.

Google Internet Balloons

A ton of Loon balloons being prepped for launch! Next time you see them, they'll be floating 20km overhead, twice as high as commercial airliners.

Here's the whole gallery of all the images on Google+. Just click above to visit.

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