We caught up with Mauro de Filho, Strategy Director at Google X to find out a bit more about its exciting new venture, Project Loon.
Q) For our readers who aren’t aware, can you provide an overview of Project Loon?
A) Project Loon is a network of stratospheric balloons, travelling 20 kms up in the air, capable of extending connectivity to rural and remote regions. Our balloons effectively act as floating cell-towers, extending the coverage area of partner mobile network operators into places currently unserved by terrestrial infrastructure.
Q) X talks about ‘Moonshot’ thinking, how was Project Loon conceived?
A) At X, moonshots typically have three components – a huge problem that affects 100’s millions of people, a radical solution that has never been attempted before and a breakthrough technology that makes this solution possible.
For Project Loon specifically, the problem was a significant one – over half of the world’s population isn’t connected to the internet, so many people just don’t have an internet connection because they live in areas that are too remote or too dispersed for current terrestrial solutions to make sense.
As for a radical solution, the first thing we considered was to look up into the sky, 20 km up, well above the conditions on the ground that make building and connecting terrestrial infrastructure difficult. Secondly, we decided to use balloons! Balloons are inherently much less expensive than, say, satellites or other aerial platforms, and so we thought that they could provide a more cost-effective way to provide connectivity to areas that currently aren’t connected.
To do this of course required some breakthrough technology – firstly, the balloons themselves. Although balloons have been around for quite some time, we needed to find a way make balloons that are strong and robust enough to withstand stratospheric conditions for a significant amount of time. Secondly, we needed to find some clever ways to allow us to “sail” these stratospheric winds and flock these balloons together. As you can imagine, predicting where winds are going, and equipping balloons with the ability to sail those winds is a significant engineering and computational challenge.
Q) What are the things that excite you about the advent of faster broadband and internet connectivity?
A) From our perspective, the most exciting thing about the future of connectivity is what will happen when more and more people are able to benefit from it. We’ve seen what a huge impact internet access has had on education, healthcare, the sharing of ideas, the growth of economies and more – the thought that what we are doing can help extend that opportunity to more and more people worldwide is what gets me out of bed in the morning.
Q) What are the three pieces of advice you would give someone putting together a project the size of Loon?
A) Firstly, it’s a team sport, and that requires diverse talents. Solving problems that have never been solved before, and require new ways of thinking, needs a variety of different perspectives and expertise. We have ex-fashion designers working alongside experts in manufacturing processes, and air traffic control experts working alongside software engineers. With problems this large, you need a team which has a really broad skill set.
Secondly, make contact with the real world as soon as you can. Our first tests were simply latex weather balloons to which we attached basic, off-the-shelf radio parts! Even though we thought the project could have a really significant impact, we were keen to get out and test as soon as possible. Contact with the real world is one of the quickest ways to learn what the potential challenges for a project might be, things you just can’t find out from working away in the lab alone, and that allowed us as a team to focus our efforts moving forward.
Finally, run at the hardest parts of the problem first. If something is defined as being critical to the success of a project, tackling that shouldn’t be avoided or left until other pieces are established, only to find out too late that the challenge is insurmountable. Highlight and isolate the challenges that could really determine the failure of the project and try as hard and as fast to solve those as you can. The more of these you solve, the less and less reason you have to think that the project might not work, and then eventually you get to a point where you think, “hey, maybe this just might work after all!”.
Q) What are the difficulties / barriers in the project?
A) One we focused on recently is how we will be able to transmit signal across our network of balloon,s so we can reach even the most remote locations, essentially, creating back-haul links in the stratosphere (much like the fiber links that connect cell-towers on the ground). It’s pretty challenging, creating an unbroken, high-speed link between two balloons hundreds of km apart in the stratosphere, moving independently. But our teams have made some really promising progress, managing to establish reliable Gbps connections between balloons over 100 km apart.
The next thing to do will be to address the challenges of doing this at scale, and more generally, this is the new set of challenges that the team are setting about tackling. We’ve been working hard to prove out the technology, just trying to understand whether we can we make this thing work. Now, the questions are how do we make it work at scale, so that anyone, anywhere can get connectivity. That’s a new set of challenges entirely, but ones that we are excited to begin solving.
Q) Ultimately what does Project Loon hope to achieve?
A) Project Loon believes that everyone, anywhere should be able to access the internet, and that is really what we are setting out to achieve. We won’t solve it all at once, and we won’t solve it alone – but we do firmly believe that the access to information that connectivity can provide is transformative, and that everyone deserves that opportunity.
Q) What are you looking forward to seeing at the Broadband World Forum at the Excel Centre in London in October?
A) Personally, I’m just really excited to be in a forum with people who share a similar vision and are addressing similar challenges: how can commercial entities work together to deliver something that has demonstrable public utility and help to bring the best that connectivity has to offer to everyone, anywhere?
Mauro will be giving a keynote presentation at this year’s Broadband World Forum on 19 October. You can find all the details about the event on the BBWF website.