Up and Away! Google Launches Balloon Operation In Minden Aiming To Achieve Global Internet

Posted By on March 31, 2015

by Scott Neuffer · 7 min read

This will be a tricky story, but well worth your time, I believe.

To paraphrase the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, those things of which we can’t speak, we must pass over in silence. That is to say, there is some cool news in this story, but also some stuff that remains secret, elusive, protected by one of the world’s biggest and brightest companies.

So we must tread carefully, not exaggerate, not overpromise, not get sued. Let’s start with what we do know.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “loon” can mean many things: a lout, a boy, a crazy person, a duck-like migratory bird native to North America.

I myself have been called a loon many times. It usually happens when people confuse prolific genius with mental instability. But maybe we can find another meaning for the word, a meaning hidden in plain sight.

My son recently celebrated a birthday. He turned four. There were balloons. Lots of balloons.

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Hmm, balloons. I see a word contained within the word for this ever-so-common-yet-somehow-always-wondrous phenomenon. Do you see it? It’s there—loon. Keep this discovery in your brain as we move forward.

Something else we know. Last spring, the Reno Gazette-Journal published a story about a balloon sailing way up high in the Northern Nevada sky—high, high—neither an errant birthday balloon nor a weather balloon. At the time, there was much speculation that the object could be related to the Google Loon Project.

Well, less than a year later, we finally have some confirmation:

“I know what it was—I built it,” said 54-year-old Gardnerville resident Jeff Neri. “Yeah, we’re flying them. We fly them every week.”

Photo from Google.com

Photo from Google.com

If Neri’s name alone sounds familiar, it’s probably because he was the general manager for North Sails in Minden for a number of years.

Now, he works for one of the most secretive organizations on the planet—Google X, the research and development arm of Google.

“It’s no secret that Google X is a secretive group,” Neri said, not without irony. “The first rule of Google X is don’t talk about Google X.”

Remember my Wittgenstein paraphrase from the beginning? This is why it’s relevant. Neri agreed to talk me, and by extension you, the reader, about the things he can talk about, the things that are public record that any nosy reporter can dig up. He did not agree to talk about, and will not talk about, the things he cannot talk about, the things we must pass over in silence.

This is what we can disclose:

In 2012, Google approached North Sails about manufacturing high-altitude balloons for a new project. This led North Sails to create a new division within its Minden operation to work on what Google wanted. Last summer, North Sails sold all the assets and intellectual property of said division to Google, and Neri was hired on to help lead Google’s Loon Project.

We’ll talk about the Loon Project later on, but first this:

“When I went from North Sails to Google, the question came up if I wanted to move to Mountain View (home of Google’s famous campus) or do it somewhere around here,” Neri said. “I said that absolutely this is the right place to do it. I know the people, I know the resources. The county is great for that.”

Photo from Google.com

Photo from Google.com

Also what we know: Google has set up a manufacturing facility in Gardnerville to build and test balloon prototypes. We don’t know the number of people working there, what goes on behind closed doors, but we do know this facility is a highly secure site that no one should try to visit.

In other words, Google coming to Gardnerville is not an economic development story in terms of mass publicity, deals with state officials, ribbon cuttings, thousands of jobs. That’s Tesla. It is a story in terms of something very cool, potentially world-changing, happening here in Gardnerville.

Photo from Google.com

Photo from Google.com

On working for Google, Neri said, “All the things you hear about them are true…all the cool things you think, but they’re kind of on the down-low.”

Although we can’t talk about the company’s inner operations, we can confirm the fact that, yes, they’re here, and we can discuss the Google Loon Project generally, as it’s something to which the company has devoted an entire public website, www.google.com/loon/

The motto of the project is “balloon-powered internet for everyone.” Google prefaces their website with this fact: “two-thirds of the world’s population does not yet have Internet access.”

The first thing that popped in my head after hearing this was fiber-optic cable, then cell towers and satellites.

But no, think more simplistically. Let your thoughts rise and drift about like balloons. Imagine Gardnerville-built Google balloons whisking forth the digital age to remote and underserved areas of the world.

According to the site, these balloons can reach the stratosphere, way beyond the paths of commercial airliners, and, using algorithms, can hitch rides on varying stratospheric wind currents to wherever internet service is needed.

Furthermore, Google Loon is partnering with telecom companies, sharing cellular spectrum, so that people can “connect to the balloon network directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices.” Each balloon offers wireless connection to a ground area of about 40 kilometers, according to the site.

Of the balloons themselves, the “envelopes” are made of polyethylene plastic and designed to last 100 days in the upper atmosphere. When inflated with helium, they measure approximately 15 meters wide and 12 meters tall. The electronic equipment that makes wireless connection possible all hangs in a small box underneath each balloon, “like the basket carried by a hot air balloon,” says the site. How quaint—except this basket is full of circuitry, antennas and lithium-ion batteries. The batteries store power from solar panels that are arranged like shields around each box, angled in a way to catch maximum sunlight.

So far, the Loons have been tested in New Zealand, Brazil and the Sierra Nevada region.

Without disclosing too much at this point, Neri said the Loon team has “hit some milestones.”

I asked him how far away we are, then, from a Loon revolution.

“As fast as we can develop all the complexities,” he answered. “There are a lot of challenges, but as soon as we can do it, we’ll do it.”

I wanted to know about the greater implications of this technology: just how transformative it could be in the global marketplace.

One way to gauge the significance of any new technology or idea is to evaluate who else is investing in the space.

Recently writing about the Loons in the MIT Technology Review, tech editor Tom Simonite revealed that Facebook has been investing in solar-paneled drones with similar capability to link wireless networks through the air. He also mentioned that Elon Musk’s Space X is interested in developing more satellite-distributed Internet in the future.

Many telecom companies, Simonite reported, would be interested in leasing such technologies to expand their networks rather than having to build out ground infrastructure in remote areas.

In other words, the race is on. There are huge players in this market. Two-thirds of the world’s population hangs in the balance.

Balloons, drones, satellites. It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that balloons might be the most cost-effective option.

“When it ramps up,” Neri said, “it will ramp up fast. The numbers will be incredibly large, and we’ll just have to be ready for it.”

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Scott Neuffer is a freelance writer who lives in Gardnerville with his wife Maria and son Andres. He recently published his first book, “Scars of the New Order,” which is available in local bookstores and on Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com. Besides reading and writing obsessively, he enjoys long walks on the beach, any beach, and poorly scripted romantic comedies. He can be reached at scott.neuffer@outlook.com.