Google is working towards providing Internet access to the entire world via solar-powered balloons.
Not much happens in Geraldine, a small farming community in the interior of the South Island of New Zealand, about 85 miles from Christchurch. So when Hayden MacKenzie, a fourth-generation farmer there, picked up the phone last Tuesday and got a request to participate in a secret project—one that he wouldn’t even learn about until he signed a vow of silence—he and his wife Anna figured that they’d take a shot. That evening, two men showed up at his cozy farmhouse. They bore a peculiar red device, a sphere slightly bigger than a volleyball perched on a short collar, and attached it to his roof. Then they left.
Only when the men returned the next day did they reveal what they were up to. Inside the red ball was an antenna that would give the MacKenzies Internet access. It was custom-designed to communicate with a similar antenna that would be floating by in the stratosphere, over 60,000 feet above sea level. On a solar-powered balloon.
Oh, and the men work for Google.
“It sounded crazy,” says MacKenzie, who bears a slight resemblance to the actor Colm Meaney. “But at the end of the day, you hope things will work out.”
The idea does sound crazy, even for Google—so much so that the company has dubbed it Project Loon. But if all works according to the company’s grand vision, hundreds, even thousands, of high-pressure balloons circling the earth could provide Internet to a significant chunk of the world’s 5 billion unconnected souls, enriching their lives with vital news, precious educational materials, lifesaving health information, and images of grumpy cats.