Sim Ahmed tags along with the Google X team behind Project Loon, documenting through photos the mad (but oddly brilliant) science experiment being conducted by one of the biggest companies in the world, right in the heart of the South Island. Words and photography by Sim Ahmed.
I found out about Google's clandestine balloon-powered internet project about a week before heading down to the South Island of New Zealand to see it for myself. While it's a top secret project, rumours have been abound across the tech community for the past few weeks – although few would've ever guessed that New Zealand would be picked as the location for its grand reveal.
For the full story about Project Loon and the science behind it, check out our article here.
We're flown by charter plane to an airfield just outside of Tekapo, in the South Island of New Zealand. The mountains and plains provide an epic backdrop for the balloon launches to come.
Tekapo is a small town located about three hours drive to the west of Christchurch, situated on the shores of Lake Tekapo.
Richard DeVaul greets us as we get off the plane. Project Loon is DeVaul's baby – an idea he dreamed up two years prior, inside of Google X.
We're shown the balloons for the first time. They're laid out on a tarp to protect the vulnerable mylar envelope from scratches. The launch team has been in Tekapo since 5 am in the morning, unpacking and preparing each unit. It's been below zero for some time and the dew gathering on the tarp has frozen over.
DeVaul, who has a PhD from MIT, takes pride in showing the journalists and even Googlers already familiar with the balloons, the fruits of his labour.
Each unit carries two antennae: one to communicate with a ground station or subscriber's transmitter and another for balloon-to-ballon communication. The antenna at the bottom can create wireless internet coverage for a 40 km diameter area. By relaying information from balloon to balloon, then onto a ground station which is connected to traditional fixed infrastructure – the Loon network is able to create a wireless internet network spanning across tens of kilometres, without having to dig up the ground.
As one balloon moves out of position due to the wind, it is replaced by another which is launched at an interval after it. Because the balloons are constantly moving with the wind current, hundreds will eventually be needed to provide reliable coverage. DeVaul says one day we may see a network of internet balloons constantly circling the globe in this fashion.
For more information about the technology behind Loon balloon's network, check out this article.
A strict checklist is followed before the launch of any balloon. It takes around 15 minutes to go through the filling and launching process. During our time with the Google team, there was a hiccup with one of the balloons – a safety switch wasn't disarmed. This was quickly resolved and it eventually launched.
A mylar envelope holds the helium gas which gives the balloon its buoyancy. A container holds stacks of gas cannisters, which feeds into the envelope.
It's time to stand clear. All personnel unnecessary to the launch process need to move away. DeVaul assures us this part is "mostly safe".
The balloons are inflated in a rush of deafening gas. Anyone standing near it at the time needs to wear ear muffs or risk hearing loss.
The balloon launches smoothly, as a helicopter films its ascension for a promo video. Its shape will change to resemble a squashed beach ball when it reaches its float position 20 km above the earth's surface.
The journalists and photographers are once again whisked away, this time by helicopter to the nearby small town of Geraldine to meet a Kiwi couple trialing the balloon-powered internet service. We will connect to the recently launched balloon once it's within range.
Hayden and Anna MacKenzies are good sports. The husband and wife team only found out about Project Loon the night before we arrived, but were excited to be a part of it all none the less.
The MacKenzies have a fixed ADSL connection, but have used satellite in the past while living rurally. They say connectivity is a constant hassle for rural New Zealanders and if the Loon project ever takes off commercially in the country, it could mean more Kiwis living outside of the major metros will become internet citizens.
DeVaul shows veteran Wired journalist Steven Levy a GPS map with the balloon's position. Tracking devices on each unit keeps Google mission control informed, while a custom built website can be used to local aviation authorities such as New Zealand's Civil Aviation Authority, to monitor their positions. DeVaul says in the future an API might be used to connect this data automatically to aviation authorities.
Google X engineers Johan Mathe (top) and Cyrus Behroozi (bottom) keep an eye on the horizon to see if the balloon from the morning is in range. Mathe works with mission control and plans the trajectory for the balloons, while Behroozi is responsible for its telecommunications components.
Mathe checks the signal strength between the balloon and the little red transmitter on top of the MacKenzie's garage. It's looking good, he says.
We go inside to test out the internet connection. Anna MacKenzie is quite chuffed about getting on Trade Me (New Zealand's equivalent to eBay) in front of the journalists and cameras without any hiccups. She says her husband was using the connection earlier in the morning to put a bid on a truck.
Third-generation Leeston farmer and entrepreneur, Charles Nimmo can claim to be the first non-Googler in the world to use Google Loon internet. His dog Sandy takes a nap next to the fire as we talk to him about the experience he and his wife Abigail have had on the balloon network.
The first website he visited was Google. Being the typical Kiwi farmer, Nimmo then went on to check the weather to see if it would be okay to shear sheep in the afternoon. He says the connection quality and speed is better than copper dial-up and on par with satellite internet. However, it doesn't compare to the cellular connection he uses now.
Steven Levy gets the full tourist treatment from our van driver. We're told about the history of the Christchurch region and of the rich glacial sediment which makes the area prime for agriculture, but also susceptible to liquefaction. During the Christchurch earth quakes in 2011, this liquefaction was the cause of much of the city's building damage.
We arrive at Google's secret warehouse in an industrial area of Christchurch. The wide open space is perfect for unpacking and preparing the balloons for launch. It also provides DeVaul enough space to use a pallet fork as a scooter – it's been a long two years, everyone needs to blow off some steam.
DeVaul and the Project Loon team gives us a full briefing of the science behind the initiative and a closer look at the technology which makes it all work.
"This isn't rocket science, this is much harder," he says on numerous occasions.
"Harmless Science Experiment" reads a small sign taped to the exterior of the payload compartment. A reward is offered for the return of any wayward balloons, DeVaul jokes that a compartment for liquor should be installed as a gift for finders.
Anton Staaf was actually born in New Zealand, before his parents moved to Seattle when he was five. Staaf is responsible for the electrical components of the balloon.
Staaf says the entire contraption is powered by a light-weight solar panel connected to the equivalent of 10 laptop batteries.
During daylight hours, the batteries are charged using the sun's energy. Any excess is converted to heat in order to keep the electronics at optimal temperature in the freezing high altitude environment.
Cyrus Behroozi shows us a simplified diagram of how the balloon-powered mesh network connects a home to a datacentre in Christchurch, complete with a doodle of New Zealand sheep.
The computer on board each balloon has roughly 1/10 the processing power of an average laptop. A simplified and hyper-reliable system is used to keep power consumption low and make on the fly restorations faster. There are redundancies of the computer in three separate locations on the balloon.
The intake and exhaust fan which controls the balloon's altitude and helps mission control pick favourable wind currents.
Kiwi Googler Craig Nevill-Manning, who heads Google's New York engineering centre, inspects the inner workings of the payload as another expat Anton Staaf , watches on.
Parachutes control the balloon's descent in case something goes wrong.
Several balloons being primed for pre-launch at the warehouse.
A fully inflated balloon is revealed to the public at an event at the Airforce Museum in Wigram.