Balloon-powered Internet for everyone, with the help of the Network Manager

19 September 2016

We often take the internet for granted, but today some four billion people still do not have access to it. In a connected 21st century, not being able to access the World Wide Web might make the difference between prosperity and poverty for many communities on the planet.

‘X’, the research and development arm of Alphabet Inc. (formerly Google X) came up with an ingenious solution to this problem. Project Loon involves a network of balloons beaming internet via LTE (the same wireless communication technology used in mobile phones) down to people in areas with gaps in coverage (rural areas or after natural disasters).

Each balloon can stay aloft for about 100 days; they fly at an altitude of 18 kilometres (far above normal air traffic). Balloons can cover an area of around 80 kilometres in diameter; they navigate by using wind currents (laterally) and by changing the mixture of gases that keep it afloat (vertically). As a network, the balloons communicate with the ground and with each other to form a strong connection of floating mobile phone towers.

Does this sound like a moon-shot idea? Google thought so too at first, and so it came up with the name ‘Loon.’

EUROCONTROL and balLoons?

As incredible as this idea may sound, cooperation is already in place to see how it can work. In May 2016, Léonard Bouygues, Project Loon Programme Manager for in-flight operations, and Nancy Graham, President of Graham Aerospace, visited the Network Manager Operations Centre (NMOC) to discuss how EUROCONTROL can contribute to the project. Graham Aerospace is heightening awareness among the international aviation community and helping Loon to improve its design, safety and operations.

Project Loon does not affect Europe’s airspace yet as balloon deployment here is not planned for the foreseeable future. BalLoons will be concentrated more on equatorial bands where internet infrastructure is scarce and access more difficult. However, some have occasionally flown over Morocco, a EUROCONTROL Comprehensive Agreement Member State, so the Agency needs to be informed about any future transits.

Project Loon is also working with some European ANSPs, like France and Portugal, because of their equatorial airspace responsibilities. They have also worked with more northern states, too - Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Coordination and Safety

Once balLoons transit to Flight Information Regions (FIRs), it is necessary to establish operating procedures to ensure coordination with Air Traffic Control. A team of flight engineers will control and monitor the balloon fleet at all times, in close coordination with Civil Aviation and Air Traffic Services across the globe. For this, the Project had to tailor its communication to ATC requirements.

As for EUROCONTROL, NMOC needs to be prepared to coordinate and provide support if a problem arises - a stray balloon flying outside its planned trajectory and approaching ECAC airspace, for example. So, NMOC staff were told about how to provide the best support to Project Loon staff on a 24/7 basis.

Know-how

Loon plans to contribute to shaping operations, technology and safety standards for high altitude commercial aviation as well as large-scale unmanned aviation, opening the way to other new entrants.

Perhaps the most valuable thing that EUROCONTROL can offer Project Loon is the Agency’s expertise.

“Close collaboration between EUROCONTROL - bringing its vast knowledge and expertise in aerospace engineering, modelling, safety, and the like - and Google - sharing its computer science expertise - will help define the aviation of the future,” observed Léonard Bouygues. “A close relationship with EUROCONTROL, with constant feedback, iteration and a focus on new entrants and new technologies is beneficial,” he added.

Good luck in your endeavour, BalLoonauts!


Gianni Lenti, Head of Network Operations in EUROCONTROL’s Network Manager Directorate, with Nancy Graham (President Graham Aerospace) and Léonard Bouygues (Project Loon in-flight operations Programme Manager) on their visit to NMOC

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