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Google Interested in Wireless Bandwidth Balloons 181

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the or-just-want-to-suck-on-helium dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Google is reportedly looking into investing in or buying a company called Space Data, which provides wireless voice and data services to remote areas with a fleet of weather balloons fitted with transceivers." My mind is sorta tripping over how something like this could work, but I gotta admit that the idea is really cool.
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Google Interested in Wireless Bandwidth Balloons

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  • Rural area (Score:5, Interesting)

    by esocid (946821) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:26PM (#22504486) Journal

    Space Data's business model is to provide low cost platforms for rural and remote data and voice communication applications via its high altitude SkySite network, which basically consists of an array of balloons equipped with a box of transceivers and other gadgets.
    This does seem pretty cool, except since they probably have a short lifespan, as well as being manipulated by weather and wind, that these won't be extremely reliable. It's well intentioned but I am just not sure how this will get off the ground (no pun intended).

    Balloon-borne transceivers are launched every 8 to 12 hours and last for about 24 hours before bursting and floating gently back down to earth. Each box of tricks carries a $100 reward for whoever finds it and returns it safely.
    So they are sending out a constant stream of weather balloons that may or may not cause concerns with air traffic (I'm not sure how high these go) that will end up just sitting in remote areas when they crash. It kind of seems like a pipe dream to me.
    • Re:Rural area (Score:5, Informative)

      by KublaiKhan (522918) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:32PM (#22504586) Homepage Journal
      If they're the same weather balloons that the NOAA folks use, they float well above commercial air traffic lanes.
    • Re:Rural area (Score:4, Interesting)

      by apdyck (1010443) <aaron.p.dyck@ g m a il.com> on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:32PM (#22504598) Homepage Journal
      I can't help but wonder about the costs. If they are paying $100 per baloon found, that's a huge chunk of change - for every baloon, 36,500/year (100/day, 24 hour float time). I would think that having tethered baloons would be a better idea, as they would not have to try to find them. Of course, you're still looking at occupying air space, and real estate on top of it if you secure them. Perhaps a better model would be to pay individuals $100/month to have a baloon tied out in their back yard, or some such.
      • Re:Rural area (Score:5, Insightful)

        by SatanicPuppy (611928) * <Satanicpuppy@ g m a i l . c om> on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:58PM (#22505008) Journal
        Yea, it seems like it should be a lot easier to get more endurance out of these things than they're getting...The balloon idea is mainly interesting as a jump off for some basically autonomous station keeping signal platforms...A small blimp covered with solar cells or powered by a large betavoltaic [wikipedia.org] battery or something...

        As long as they're just spamming platforms that last for a day or two, the idea is pretty much doomed. The loss rate is going to be astronomical, and sending guys out in a truck to pick 'em up is in no way cost efficient.
        • Re:Rural area (Score:5, Interesting)

          by mikael (484) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @06:39PM (#22508876)
          The Japanese experimented with incendiary devices that used the jet stream to travel across the USA. To maintain the correct altitude, the balloon would either dump ballast or vent hydrogen. It might even be possible to make of the fact that wind direction and speed can be completely different depending upon altitude.

          * Building a balloon that could survive a three-day trip across the Pacific and then automatically drop its warload was technically challenging. Since a hydrogen balloon expands in the sunlight and rises, then contracts at night and falls, the Japanese engineers had to develop a battery-operated automatic control system to maintain altitude. When the balloon descended below 9 kilometers (29,500 feet), it electrically fired charges to cut loose sandbags. The sandbags were carried on a cast-aluminum four-spoked wheel, and discarded two at a time to keep the wheel balanced. Similarly, when the balloon rose above about 11.6 kilometers (38,000 feet), the altimeter activated a valve to vent hydrogen; the hydrogen was also vented if the balloon's pressure reached a critical level.

          The balloon had to carry about 900 kilograms (1,000 pounds) of gear, which meant a hydrogen balloon with a diameter of about 10 meters (33 feet). At first, the balloons were made of conventional rubberized silk, but there was a cheaper way to make an envelope that leaked even less. An order went out for ten thousand balloons made of "washi", a paper derived from mulberry bushes that was impermeable and very tough. It was only available in squares about the size of a road map, so it was glued together in three or four laminations using paste derived from a tuber with the Japanese name of "devil's-tongue".

          Balloons in warfare [vectorsite.net]
        • by aaarrrgggh (9205)
          It's actually a pretty ingenious start-up solution.

          Initial costs are minimized by having such a cheap deployment cost. Costs are kept down by limiting the battery needs for the device, letting it drift, and having a practical coverage range. If the marginal cost to launch another balloon is only $225 given launch, recover, and mortality, they can quickly adapt to changing needs. Upgrading the network with new technology is about as easy as it gets... just mail out a new set of shoeboxes!

          Once you start ad
        • by Atario (673917)
          Or you could make the comm package an unfolding self-guided glider plane. Balloon pops, packages senses it, unfolds, glides back to nearest assigned pick-up point using GPS.

          My idea! Patent pending! Pay me!
          • Or you could make the comm package an unfolding self-guided glider plane. Balloon pops, packages senses it, unfolds, glides back to nearest assigned pick-up point using GPS.

            Realistically, you'll need a team of engineers for a couple of years to develop this so that it's reliable. With the risk of the cost of such a project spiralling out of control as unanticipated problems arise. And the lost opportunity of delaying deployment a couple to several years.

            Or you could have one employee with a pick-up tr

            • you'll need a team of engineers for a couple of years to develop this so that it's reliable
              Yeah, I'm sure you will [members.shaw.ca].
              You probably wouldn't mind a few lost packages (they must be cheap for people to take $100 instead of stealing them)
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Thansal (999464)
        wait, I got it!

        Why don't we set up these polls that will have the hardware on top!

        We just need to space them out nice and evenly, and we wouldn't have to worry (as much) about weather effects. Heck, why limit our selves to just just traditional internet access. I bet I could rig up some sort of portable radio that could make use of these polls.

        I could call them PollRadios!

        Yah! I am going to make MILLIONS!

        So, seriously, what is the point of these balloons? I mean, I could see usages for it where you need
        • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 21, 2008 @02:06PM (#22505146)
          I would have modded you up, but you misspelled pole.
        • Why don't we set up these polls that will have the hardware on top!
          We just need to space them out nice and evenly, and we wouldn't have to worry (as much) about weather effects. Heck, why limit our selves to just just traditional internet access. I bet I could rig up some sort of portable radio that could make use of these polls.

          Yep indeedee, that would be a Paula Bean Brillant idea, why it wouldn't take more than a pole every 20 miles in wide open spaces to handle that - how many square miles is Texas?.

      • by Yez70 (924200)
        So what happens when a local crop duster or life flight helicopter flies through this tethered balloon? It's definitely not a batter model.
      • by Deadstick (535032)
        A free balloon occupies airspace at one altitude. A tethered balloon occupies airspace at that altitude and every altitude below it.

        rj
      • by ad0gg (594412)
        They currently launch 6 six a day, the ballon itself is $50, the radio is $1500 and parachutes back to earth after it reaches its lifespan. They are ballast altitude controlled and can control where they move much like hot air ballons by adjusting their elevation and catching different air currents.

        Tethered ballons you have issues with planes running into the lines and coping with the stress put on the line due to high speed winds.

  • by DigitalisAkujin (846133) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:26PM (#22504488) Homepage
    The beginning of the end for ISPs.

    The internet will eventually become a self propagating mesh network. (Case and point: One laptop per child)
    • by zienth (890583) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @02:34PM (#22505584)
      The internet is a series of balloons...

      Zienth
    • by headbulb (534102) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @02:46PM (#22505760)
      Mesh networks are interesting, but a wireless one that would be required would have way too many hops. Then the congestion on each hop would be high too.

      Ping rates would go down the tubes.
    • by rho (6063)
      John Sidgemore of UUNet used to talk about using balloons, too. ISPs sell infrastructure; they'll do okay.
  • Dear Google (Score:5, Funny)

    by Archangel Michael (180766) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:26PM (#22504498) Journal
    I have a BB Gun.
  • Why? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ShadowsHawk (916454) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:27PM (#22504502)
    I love Google as much as the next slashdotter, but I have to wonder where they're going with this. Android, the dark fiber, Wifi balloons, etc. It doesn't really tie into advertising.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      i have to admit it seems like the idea of a stoner... "dude... we're going to send people wireless internet from a balloon... "
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Possibly just a publicity stunt? We know that google shot themselves into the limelight and now they must try to stay there. Creative ideas to bring internet access to rural areas keep your good name alive among many. I believe they are attempting to continue to be seen as the "good" company where as many tech-oriented folks look at Microsoft as the "bad" company. Image is everything and I think they are trying to keep it together. However, I agree that this seems to be a bit out there.
    • When people's Android cellphones are reporting their every move via a network of wi-fi weather baloons, Google will have totally cornered the market of Paranoid Schitzophrenic consumers.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by rootofevil (188401)
        cornering paranoid schizophrenics?

        that doesnt sound like a good idea to me.

        at least not if you want to live.
        • by curunir (98273) *
          On the plus side, you get at least twice as many customers per customer as you do with sane customers.
    • by Kelbear (870538) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @02:03PM (#22505112)
      Let me be the first to suggest:

      "Skynet"
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by peacefinder (469349)
      Google bidding in the FCC bandwidth auction in progress + balloon-based cell transceivers + dark fiber = cheap new national cell network for Android.

      Of course, there remain one or two technical obstacles...
      • by Lisandro (799651)
        Google bidding in the FCC bandwidth auction in progress + balloon-based cell transceivers + dark fiber = cheap new national cell network for Android.

        That wouldn't be exactly cheap, or even practical. Besides being only applicable in the US.
  • by peter303 (12292) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:27PM (#22504506)
    The stock market has stopped believing Google's undisciplined business model will be that profitable and driven the stock price down considerably.
  • by KublaiKhan (522918) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:27PM (#22504510) Homepage Journal
    We all know what happens when 99 red balloons are floating in the summer sky.

    If they're carrying data, well, so much the worse...
    • The colour of the balloons is just an artefact of the translation from the song's original German where they were just "99 Luftballons" (actually the German lyrics tell a much better story as the translation changes a lot). So the world is over whatever colour they make them.
    • by davidsyes (765062) *
      Nina Hagen singing about "99 Bluffed Balloons", or "99 Soft Balloons", or "99 Trial Balloons"?
  • by smooth wombat (796938) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:28PM (#22504526) Homepage Journal
    From the article:

    Balloon-borne transceivers are launched every 8 to 12 hours and last for about 24 hours before bursting and floating gently back down to earth. Each box of tricks carries a $100 reward for whoever finds it and returns it safely.

    That's an awful waste of resources not to mention what happens if someone is transmitting a signal when the balloon in your area pops? How much does all this constant launching and recovering cost compared to just putting in a tower despite the remoteness?

    I can see using these balloons for limited times, such as emergencies, or battlefield conditions where there are no cell towers (as the article intimates) but for every day use? I don't think so.

    And what is this 'floating gently back down to earth' stuff? Unless they have a parachute, the tranceiver will not be floating gently back down to earth when the balloon pops. It will be plummeting.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by bugs2squash (1132591)
      I think this is why HALE (High-Altitude Long-Endurance) Aircraft have been proposed as a more reasonable solution
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by redxxx (1194349)
        well, that and the whole being able to keep a HALE on station. Balloons get pushed around by the wind, so even if they stayed afloat, they would end up where they were you didn't need them.
    • by Cyberax (705495) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:44PM (#22504782)
      Weather balloons do not 'pop' like common toy balloons.

      If you make a tear in balloons fabric - it will slowly descend as the helium inside the balloon leaks.

      Of course, if you tear balloon apart - it will fall lake a lead weight. But it's rather hard to do.
      • by dargaud (518470) <slashdot2NO@SPAMgdargaud.net> on Thursday February 21, 2008 @03:21PM (#22506252) Homepage

        If you make a tear in balloons fabric - it will slowly descend as the helium inside the balloon leaks.
        No.

        I spent a year launching weather balloons from Antarctica [gdargaud.net]. They take about one hour to reach 20~30km altitude, then the latex tears up (remember, as the pressure decreases, the volume increases) and the plummet to the ground in less then 10 minutes. In rare cases what's left of the latex will form a parachute shape and they will drop slower.

        If you fill them more, they go up faster and blow up earlier (as the latex reaches its maximum thinness earlier). If you underfill them, you get less buoyancy [wikipedia.org], and they can float for a long time if they don't go up to where they'll pop, which is probably what you want here.

        But I have to remind you that:

        • latex is expensive (at least for daily balloon launches, you are OK with your S&M fantasies).
        • helium is very expensive and world quantities are limited and will run out before petroleum does.
        • a standard weather balloon can lift only about 200 grams, which pretty much limits the quantity of battery and thus the wifi power range you can carry.
        All that being said I think it's a neat idea, but not as much as solar powered ultra-light drones.
        • by Cyberax (705495)
          I went on a several trips with climate scientists while I was in a university. I distinctly remember that meteo balloons were not that easy to pop.

          And they also don't cost much. For example, I found this price: http://him-wettershop.com/ENG_276_EUR_0_722__.html [him-wettershop.com] - 11 euro for a balloon is quite OK. It should be even less if you buy them in quantity.

          Helium is expensive, but there are VAST quantities of it. In any case, balloons do not require much of it.

          Also, balloons will fly over the clouds, so they can use
    • by robertjw (728654)

      That's an awful waste of resources not to mention what happens if someone is transmitting a signal when the balloon in your area pops? How much does all this constant launching and recovering cost compared to just putting in a tower despite the remoteness?

      I can see using these balloons for limited times, such as emergencies, or battlefield conditions where there are no cell towers (as the article intimates) but for every day use? I don't think so.

      Well, let's speculate on costs a bit.

      It's safe to a

    • Cost Analysis (Score:3, Interesting)

      by maokh (781515)
      Every 8 hours means 3 launches a day, or 1095 launches a year.

      With even the cheapest base station hardware, helium, balloon (at say, $5000 per unit), costs would exceed $14.6M/year per site.

      This does not include the labor to continuously manufacturer, transport, and launch equipment.

      At a rate of $50/month per subscriber, you would need about 25,000 to break even on base station--hardware alone. This does not include the uplink facility, bandwidth costs, and business administration costs.

      I have seen

      • Re:Cost Analysis (Score:4, Informative)

        by aaarrrgggh (9205) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @07:38PM (#22509442)
        From the WSJ article, the shoebox is $1,500, launch is $50 (they use H2 rather than He), and recovery $100. They pay farmers to launch them and adventurers to recover them, included in that cost. With 5% mortality, the cost per balloon is $225, or cost per year $82k. Since the boxes are so cheap, they can distribute 20-30 to different farmers to launch when requested. The recovery is aided by GPS coordinates, but I will admit it wouldn't be worth $100 to me to go out and find one.

        The coverage should be ~50 mile radius.

        To build a base station to do the same thing you would need at least a 300' mast and microwave links between them, plus you have to lease the ground. I don't think you can pull it off with less than a 3-year payback; you also need more prime airwaves.
    • Each box of tricks carries a $100 reward for whoever finds it and returns it safely.


      Hmm. I can't help wondering how something that's worth $100 per day to google isn't worth the finder keeping forever.
      • Hmm. I can't help wondering how something that's worth $100 per day to google isn't worth the finder keeping forever.


        Well, perhaps its identifiable, and contains some kind of locating system that enables the operator to locate it at need, but the $100 reward is just an incentive so that the operating company saves on going out and recovering some of them, so the finder keeping it forever isn't really a viable option.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Zach978 (98911)
      Wall Street Journal has a much more complete article [wsj.com] about these balloons, and a video.

      According to the article:

      The electronic gear they carry, encased in a small Styrofoam box, then drifts gently back to earth on tiny parachutes.
      [..]
      While the balloons are cheap and disposable at $50 a pop, the transceivers they carry are worth about $1,500. Once a transceiver is released from its balloon to parachute back to earth, there's no way to predict where it will land. So Space Data has hired 20 hobbyists with GPS

      • there's no way to predict where it will land. So Space Data has hired 20 hobbyists with GPSS devices to track them down.

        From the article: Recovery missions can get intense. Workers have had to pluck transceivers out of trees in Louisiana, rappel down rocky cliffs in Arizona, trudge through swamps and kayak across ponds. Space Data pays them $100 per transceiver recovered.
        "These things can fall anywhere," says Chip Kyner of San Antonio, who once hiked seven miles before finding the transmitter he was look

    • by westlake (615356) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @03:21PM (#22506254)
      And what is this 'floating gently back down to earth' stuff?

      How many of the packages can they realistically expect to recover?

      "Rural and remote" suggests difficult terrain, dense cover, lakes and ponds, and very few people. I don't think we are talking about the cornfields in Nebraska.

      What most puzzles me is why Google wants to enter a market difficult and expensive to service, and with so little prospect of a significant return.

    • "what happens if someone is transmitting a signal when the balloon in your area pops? "

      The ballons last for 24 hours and new ones are sent up ooevery 12 to 8 hours. So that means
      there are always two or three balons up in the air. The way your phone works is that it always
      connects to the "best" tower. So when a balloon pop you phone will then connect to the next-best
      balloon.

      Towers can only be a few tens of feet tall and their service area is small. At the height of
      a tower the earth's horizon is only abou
  • How do they keep people from stealing the balloons and thusly the transceivers?
  • Why not tethered? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TripMaster Monkey (862126) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:35PM (#22504646)
    It seems that if this company simply tethered their balloons to the ground, they could minimize losses, and thus could afford to deploy far more robust balloons, which could last significantly longer than 24 hours. If a balloon exceeds its life span, sustains damage, or requires maintenance or updates to its payload, it could simply be reeled in as a replacement is reeled out.
    • by esocid (946821)
      Then you would have to worry about how to keep them afloat for such a long period of time and how high to let them float to send an optimal signal over distance. Plus putting lights on it for night visibility for low-flying aircraft. Just letting them go seems more practical, yet impractical in other areas, such as cost like you mention, as well as balloons that crash in remote areas that no one will ever find. That's an awful lot of equipment to just send up in the air and hope to get it returned.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Nope - tethering is a non-starter.

      If you tether the balloon, the altitude has to be very low or else the cable would be a hazard to aircraft. The whole idea is to put these up so high that they are well out of the way of air traffic. Also, the higher you go, the bigger the area you can cover.

      Think of these as cheap, low altitude satellites.
      • You know, it is possible to route aircraft around areas... Aircraft generally don't fly hither and yon, wherever they please...they adhere to approved flight plans.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Yarrr (1243698)
          Aircraft under VFR flight rules do fly hither and yon, where ever they want (in class G airspace) and flight plans are not always required or even need to be approved. Thats just how SAR finds you when you have an "unplanned landing". There is no requirement for contact with ATC, and you can fly as low as 500 feet AGL, and even lower if the weather is closing in. Sending up 2-3 balloons a day would not be a big deal but making a mesh network of weather balloons, say 20 a day would cause a hazard. Maybe goi
    • That adds the additional cost of leasing space from landowners (read: farmers) who are accustomed to getting at least $5,000/year for a small footprint land lease agreement.
      • True, but that's $5,000/year vs. $36,500/year ($100/day) with their existing model. Even with paying landowners a premium, they still would come out ahead.
  • I could see this working if you run, say, a WAP up with a balloon and use an ethernet cable as a balloon string, but floating them around and having them "float" (ha ha) back down to earth every 24 hours and trusting that someone'll actually see them (as compared to running them over with a tractor in a huge field of what-have-you), AND return them, seems unworkable.
  • Helium Shortage (Score:4, Informative)

    by Ilan Volow (539597) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:40PM (#22504718) Homepage
    I wonder how Google plans to deal with the rising cost of helium?

    http://science.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=08/01/14/0219246&from=rss [slashdot.org]

  • I would think that there is too much liability involved. Think of the lawsuits after one of these things comes down on a house / car / animal / small child... Or what if a plane slams into one killing a few 100 people. And, who's responsible for the ecological damage of this trash landing in the oceans / lakes / rivers / forest?

    From a cute sci-fi sort of view it's "neat-o", but wildly unpractical.

  • Google's stock price is inflated so they need to do stuff like this to satisfy the high forward P/E ratio.

    Soon, they'll probably have to get into the hardware biz and compete with companies like Sun, IBM, Apple.

    Hmm that brings up the prospect of high end linux laptops, mp3 players, gaming devices, and HDTV's from Google to compete. It could happen. They'll need a top dog designer though.
  • My mind is sorta tripping over how something like this could work, but I gotta admit that the idea is really cool.

    Yo! You be trippin' about dis sheeit, but you not be unnerstandin' how fuckin' moronic it make you be lookin', foo. Word.

    I speak redneck fluently, too, y'all. It ain't gonna make nobody thank I'm booklarned neither.

    The summary was so, shall we say, "unlearned" that I doubt far too seriously that if someone with the lack of communication skills exhibited by the anonymous submitter submitted it, t
  • http://techdirt.com/articles/20080220/123009308.shtml [techdirt.com]

    Techdirt claims it (probably) ain't so.

  • It's been said that every one's a super hero - every one's a Captain Kirk!
  • At least if Google loses contact with the balloon, it's still in the earth's atmosphere and won't necessarily need missiles to shoot it down, but merely a sniper rifle would suffice
  • by OldHawk777 (19923) * <<ten.nozirev> <ta> <tnavoleda>> on Thursday February 21, 2008 @07:11PM (#22509170) Journal

    This is a possible reality.
    http://www.worldskycat.com/markets/skycom.html [worldskycat.com]
  • These disposable balloons, while a cute idea, are simply too hobby/garage level. Google, with giant coffers, need to think on a grander 'Bladerunneresque' scale. They should instead deploy manned/autonomous airships (blimps) to serve this purpose.

    These airships could serve multiple purposes (among many others I'm sure Google's clever folks could come up with):

    - Photography for Google Maps.
    - Airvertising as another revenue source.
    - Weather.

  • No one has posted http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IP_over_Avian_Carriers [wikipedia.org]

    IP over Avian Carriers?

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