Google to encircle the globe with satellites, balloons and drones

Google has plans to spend $1 billion (probably more) on a fleet of 180 small, high-capacity satellites orbiting the earth at lower altitudes than traditional satellites. The satellites will supposedly be part of a coordinated effort to deliver Internet services via satellite, high-altitude balloons and drones.

Google's satellite venture is led by Greg Wyler, founder of satellite-communications startup O3b Networks Ltd., who recently joined Google with O3b's former chief technology officer. Sources say that Google has also been hiring engineers from satellite company Space Systems/Loral LLC to work on the project.

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The satellites are supposed to be significantly lighter and cheaper to launch than previous satellites. Tim Farrar, head of satellite-consulting firm TMF Associates estimated that 180 small satellites could be launched for as little as about $600 million.

People at Google's Project Loon are already working on high-tech, high-altitude balloons to provide broadband service to remote parts of the world and underserved locations. (Okay, balloons don’t sound very high tech. Guess they’ll have to buy a ton of string to tether them all.)

The final flying piece of this puzzle involves Titan Aerospace, a company that Google acquired last April. Titan was building solar-powered drones to provide broadband connectivity.

Google hasn’t officially come out and stated exactly what their sky plans really are or how these pieces will fit together but you sure have to hand it to them, it’s all very sci-fi (or Jules Verne-ish at least).

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Now Mr. Farrar doesn’t think that all three technologies will be used together. Instead, he believes the balloons will be replaced by drones. (Thank you Google for creating a reality where I can use a phrase like ‘balloons will be replaced by drones’ and have it actually mean something!)

Along with the satellite/balloon/drone approach, Google is also working on fiber optic broadband in some select cities. One wonders what’s next. Broadband delivered by robotic cats with tiny antennas mounted on their furry backs? Laser beams bounced off clouds? Stone submarines transmitting from the Gulf of Mexico? High energy tunneling particle accelerators? A broadband nexus at the center of the earth?

Whatever they come up with I hope that at least some of it works.

Guy Wright

Guy Wright has been covering the technology space since the days when computers had cranks and networks were steam powered. He has been a writer and editor for many of the most influential publications over the years – publications that helped shape our current technological zeitgeist. He has lost count of the number of articles, blogs, reviews, rants, and books that he has published over the years, but he hasn’t stopped learning and writing about new things.


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