Tech by VICE

Google’s Internet-Beaming Balloons Keep Crashing

The latest Loon balloon to crash landed in a South African sheep farmer’s backyard.

by Jordan Pearson
Nov 20 2014, 10:11pm

​Image: ​Project Loon/Google+

A balloon belonging to Google X's moon-shot Loon program crash landed today in South Africa's Karoo region, where Urbanus Botha, a sheep farmer, came across it.

According to local reports, Botha was about to use the downed balloon as a painting tarp before his 20 year-old daughter, Sarita, discovered it belonged to Google after—what else?—Googling it.

The Loon program is dedicated to building a ring of balloons that will circle the earth in near-orbit, beaming WiFi into every corner of the world. It's an ambitious undertaking and, as project founder Richard DuVaul said at the Smithsonian's Future Is Here event in May, the biggest challenge the team has faced is controlling all the balloons.

Since the Loon initiative kicked off last year, Google balloons have crashed in New Zealand— where the company had to compensate local police for sending out a rescue chopper—and Yakima, Washington. The crash in South Africa marks the third continent the 12-foot polyethylene balloons have unexpectedly found themselves on the ground.

An early Loon prototype in January 2013. Image: Project Loon/Google+

These crashes are the exception in the Loon program, however, and not the rule: Google X's balloons have traveled three million kilometres in total since the first launch. The balloons are still being tested for endurance and resilience, so a few hiccups are to be expected. Google also coordinates with local air traffic control and sends a team to recover the balloon when there is a crash.

According to a Google+ post by the Loon team from today, they now have the capability to launch 20 balloons at a time and with much-improved equipment since the early days of the program. According to the post, the software that controls the balloons' path is getting much more accurate.

"By constantly computing thousands of trajectory simulations it turns out we can get pretty close to our targets," the authors wrote. "For example, one flight came within 1.5km of our target destination over a flight of 9,000 kilometers, purely through predicting and sailing with the stratospheric winds."

Despite today's crash, it looks as though Google X's researchers are unperturbed and the Loon project is still on track to bring the whole world internet with a network of balloons.

Update: Google sent a statement to Motherboard. "Since launching Project Loon in New Zealand last year, we've continued to do research flights to improve the technology. We coordinate with local air traffic control authorities and have a team dedicated to recovering the balloons when they land. We're currently looking into the situation."