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Google Resurrects the old Stratellite Concept

Stratellites – communications satellites that are based on blimps in the stratosphere rather than space-borne units, are not a new idea. As a near-future concept, they have been around since 2007, as a way to radically cut the costs of installing internet infrastructure to remote locations, and general communications technology.

Rather than launching an expensive satellite into orbit, you instead outfit your blimp and let it drift up to the desired height. Same basic functionality, save transmission propagation speeds are doubled (because the distances involved are halved), and of course, you save millions on the cost of a rocket and a satellite.

In practical terms, stratellites have never really gotten off the ground. There are great challenges in the concept. Unlike with a satellite, a stratellite is at the mercy of the weather. Equipping it with a GPS system to monitor its own position and propulsion to prevent that position wandering is easy enough, but how do you fuel that propulsion system indefinitely? How do you power the GPS and other on board equipment also indefinitely? Whatever you do, it has to be light enough for the blimp to hold it aloft – the heavier your rig is, the larger the blimp you need. The blimp too has to be able to withstand an operating lifespan of years.

So it was a great idea with a few practical hurdles.

Lately however, Google have been looking at the concept with serious interest. Two-thirds of the population of the planet – mostly in third world nations and remote locations – are without internet access, and stratellites would offer the cheapest way to connect them in a relatively short timespan.

Two months ago, Google researchers released twenty helium-filled test balloons flying 20 kilometres (12.4 miles) above Christchurch in New Zealand, with transmission systems on board that were linked to Google-owned ground base stations dotted round the area, and to fifty volunteers who had signed up to take part in the project, getting their sole internet access from these balloons until such time as they fail, if they do.

This is Google's project Loon (hopefully not aptly named), which will use Google's financial muscle to try to turn stratellites into a reality. The obvious benefits to Google are massive – those two thirds of the planet's population, when they get online, will supply Google directly with a vast well of search clients, never mind its other services.

A google prototype stratellite is unveiled to reporters, June 2013. This was later one of the 20 test balloons to be launched.
Credit: Marty Melville

The ultimate goal is a swarm of thousands or tens of thousands of relatively cheap construction blimps all networked together. Not unlike a traditional cloud storage system, this swarm will have intelligent properties. Because they're relatively cheap, the balloons could fail. If they do, the other balloons will reposition themselves to cover the gap, and maintain coverage. Because they are so cheap, more can be launched relatively easily without undue cost, and at almost no notice.

The new blimps rising to take a position in the swarm, and adjusting their position asw the nearby blimps do likewise, for optimum coverage.

Google have not released details of how they plan to fuel and power the engines and on-board computer systems of these stratellites, but with Loon in its early stages, that is hopefully to stop others jumping on the bandwagon.

Richard DeVaul, Google's chief technical architect has stated that the eventual plan is to have a grid of blimps, each the size of a small plane, continually floating above the Earth – the entire planet. This would ensure that no part of the surface was ever without internet access, and he is aware it will take 300-400 stratellites to do that.

However, he cautioned that it was far too early in the stage of the project to even think about covering the entire planet. They're still ensuring their current plan will actually function on a relatively small scale.

Loon project leader Mike Cassidy added that if their stratellites are as successful as they hope, it might actually allow third world countries to forego the expense of installing fibre-optic cable.
"It's a huge moonshot, a really big goal to go after," he said."The power of the Internet is probably one of the most transformative technologies of our time."





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