By Dr William Rolleston*
What does it take to come up with an idea so radically mad that it could change the world?
Google has, or should I say, its Google X division; a place where engineers’ dream of what could be.
This is how Google’s Rich DeVaul introduced balloon powered internet, Project Loon to the world on Saturday.
It was a Silicon Valley tech launch transplanted into Christchurch’s stunning Wigram Airforce Museum.
The concept of balloon powered internet is so ‘out there,’ even Google X played up how radical it is. But is it as ‘out there’ as say Bill Hamilton’s jet boat, Bill Gallagher’s electric fence or Colin Murdoch’s tranquiliser gun?
That’s why Project Loon is the epitome of innovation. It takes cool science and puts it together in a completely new way.
One of Project Loon launch videos said the internet would give farmers better access to weather data meaning they can grow more food. Farmers feed families after all.
Back in the 18th Century, Thomas Malthus put forward a theory we’d call ‘Peak Food’ today. Malthus thought population growth was outstripping food supply.
At the time the world’s human population had taken thousands of years to reach one billion but over the past 200 years, the human population has expanded sevenfold.
Food supply, though at times stretched, has mostly kept up with population growth. That is thanks to the Green Revolution started some fifty-years ago based around better genetic lines, pesticides and fertiliser.
I believe one prong of the next farming revolution will be the ‘silicon revolution,’ typified by knowledge transfer, precision agriculture and autonomous machines - things Google’s Project Loon could help deliver by connecting farms to centres of information and allowing a two-way exchange of data.
New Zealand’s farmers are also desperate for new ways to get onto the internet.
My colleague, Jeanette Maxwell, who chairs Federated Farmers Meat & Fibre, struggles for speed and reliability. Farming at Mt Hutt, she has broadband of a fashion but the wired element is on old copper and she often calls after sending an email just to make sure it has got through. That really defeats the purpose of email.
Her farm is at the outer edge of 3G coverage and she also happens to be in the satellite shadow thrown by Mt Hutt; direct satellite broadband is not an option either. If there is a farm fit for Google’s Project Loon then Jeanette’s is it.
If after all the testing Google’s Project Loon proves successful, it could ensure near total broadband coverage for rural New Zealand and at speeds associated with 3G mobile.
The technology website, Wired, who was also at the launch, describes best how Project Loon will work. “Modern weather models can easily determine the course of a balloon floating in the atmosphere, predicting its path with high accuracy up to five days ahead. By adjusting the buoyancy of the balloon - making it go up and down - it's a simple task to "steer" the balloon in the direction you want it to go. Then it just becomes a case of making sure there are enough balloons in the sky to cover the areas you need to cover”.
Project Loon radios are powered by innovative light weight solar arrays only as thick as vinyl. It is an example for how solar can be deployed when it is practical and affordable.
These radios use the same frequencies you have at home for WiFi or a cordless telephone; 2.4 and 5.8GHz. At 20 kilometres high in the stratosphere a balloon can cover a vast area; around 40 kilometres. At this height they are also twice the height of commercial aircraft too. While it is still early days, testers confirm the signal is unaffected by satellite delay or terrain, indeed Leeston farmer, Charles Nimmo, went as far to say it was his best internet experience to date.
With Project Loon the ‘world wide web’ may finally lives up to the www prefix. Google isn’t looking to become a direct provider but is blazing a trail as it did with the Android smartphone operating system. Google is, we believe, interested in talking to internet service providers about delivery to farms, businesses and households.
So when will Project Loon extend beyond a few postcodes in South Canterbury?
Compared to Google X’s other “moon shots,” like Google Glass wearable devices and a driverless car, Project Loon is a baby. That said, it is well off the drawing board and that revolution started right here in New Zealand.
Project Loon is a massive vote of confidence by Google in how progressive New Zealand agriculture and our rural communities aspire to be.
Technology like this literally puts Waipukurau on the same technological footing as Auckland’s Westmere. Technologies like Project Loon are opportunities to not only keep but attract people, businesses and services to rural areas.
In helping to make the world a smaller place, the internet can remove the technological tyranny of being rural. In Project Loon, the future of global internet connectivity could be up, up and away.
Project Loon balloon on display in Christchurch
Dr William Rolleston is the Vice-President of Federated Farmers and farms in partnership with his brother John at Blue Cliffs Station.