Project Loon: High-flying balloons looks to the heavens for connection
There hasn’t been much action in the skies above South Africa recently. It takes only a quick look at the app Flightradar 24 to confirm that South Africa’s airspace is, by and large, empty.
Just the odd plane filled with cargo, and that is about it. All thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic and the travel ban. But this has changed recently. Strange objects have been entering our airspace.
On flightradar24, they show up as yellow orbs, like Chinese lanterns, floating across the southern tip of Africa. Recently there was one sitting off the coast of Durban, another strayed into the Northern Cape from Namibia. But this is no out-of-this-world invasion – these yellow orbs come in peace.
They are in fact helium balloons, flying high above the usual altitude of jet liners. And they are crossing South African airspace to get to Mozambique.
It's Project Loon, which uses a network of those high-flying balloons to provide internet access to rural and remote areas across the world.
The latest leg of the project aims to bring internet connectivity to northern Mozambique. “I can confirm these are Loon balloons being used as part of our efforts to provide balloon-powered internet access to unserved and underserved users across Africa,” says Rick Cohen, a spokesperson for Loon LLC, when asked about the strange objects that appeared on Flightradar 24.
The balloons travel thousands of kilometres to reach their destination. Launched in the US, they ride the wind on the very edge of space. They navigate by changing altitude and using wind.
“The balloons are designed to last for hundreds of days in the stratosphere. When a balloon is ready to land, we navigate it to a sparsely populated area,” says Cohen. Once over the region where they are to provide internet access, the balloons act as floating cellphone towers.
“On any given day, Loon has dozens of balloons flying around the world as part of ongoing operations,” says Cohen. “In the past few years, the Loon system has been used to connect hundreds of thousands of people. To date, Loon’s balloons have flown over 40 million kilometres – enough to circle the earth 1 000 times.”
A couple of years ago, one South African did have a close encounter with one of the balloons. A sheep farmer in the Karoo discovered one on his farm after it had crashed.
Telecommunications expert Arthur Goldstuck says the initiative is a great idea, but it has its shortcomings. “The problem with project Loon is that it is there to fill gaps, it is not there to build infrastructure, which is a fundamental shortcoming.
"But as a stopgap solution and as a technology of growth, yes, it is a wonderful project.” Goldstuck says populations in remote areas won’t necessarily have the devices such as smart phones and computers to take advantage of internet access.
Before Mozambique, Project Loon’s balloons were riding the winds to Kenya. “We recently launched the world’s first-ever large-scale, commercial deployment of balloon-powered internet in Kenya, working with local operator Telkom Kenya to bring internet to a 50 000km2 region of Kenya that has traditionally been difficult to serve because of mountainous and inaccessible terrain,” says Cohen.
In May, Loon announced a partnership with Vodacom to expand into Mozambique. The system is in the testing phase, and is expected to launch commercially later in the year.
This means the yellow orbs that pop up on Flightradar 24 will no longer be mysterious objects in the sky as they become a regular feature.