Google trains a Loon balloon to surf the air currents, avoiding the “polar vortex”

If you don’t subscribe to Project Loon’s Google+ account, then I would highly recommend that you do. Sure, it’s all a marketing effort to promote Google’s crazy plan to connect the world through a balloon-based broadband network, but the blog is often gripping, seat-of-your-pants reading as Google describes the adventures of its dirigibles as they traverse the heavens.
On Thursday, Google recounted the journey of one balloon, No. I-167, as it completed a trip around the globe in the southern hemisphere in just 22 days, compared to the 33-day voyage the typical balloon takes to circumnavigate the earth.

The voyage of Loon balloon I-167 as it circumnavigates the globe (source: Google)

The voyage of Loon balloon I-167 as it circumnavigates the globe (source: Google)

Google is trying to train its balloons to catch the currents of swift stratospheric winds so they’ll travel faster over the oceans — where there’s no one to connect — so they can spend more time over landmasses. But as Project Loon describes, there are plenty of obstacles along the way:

“Traversing the stratosphere is particularly challenging this time of year because the winds actually change direction as the southern hemisphere moves from warmer to colder weather, resulting in divergent wind paths that are hard to predict. Since last June, we’ve been using the wind data we’ve collected during flights to refine our prediction models and are now able to forecast balloon trajectories twice as far in advance. In addition, the pump that moves air in or out of the balloon has become three times more efficient, making it possible to change altitudes more rapidly to quickly catch winds going in different directions. There were times, for example, when this balloon could have been pulled into the polar vortex – large, powerful wind currents that whip around in a circle near the stratosphere in the polar region – but these improvements enabled us to maneuver around it and stay on course. We can spend hours and hours running computer simulations, but nothing teaches us as much as actually sending the balloons up into the stratosphere during all four seasons of the year.”

Who knows if Project Loon will ever pan out. As I’ve written before, building Loon isn’t just an ambitious technological feat, but also a massive political undertaking as Google tries to build the world’s first stateless wireless network inside the Earth’s atmosphere. But watching Google try to make the project work is worth the price of admission.