In suburban America, many of us take instant internet access for granted. Two-thirds of the world’s population doesn’t have a connection, often because of a lack of infrastructure needed to provide the service.
Internet giant Google is offering a new way to provide that infrastructure: by balloon. Not just any balloons, but helium-filled weather balloons that fly 12 miles into the stratosphere, high above clouds and commercial airplanes. The balloons are tall and resemble clear, gigantic, inflated garbage bags. They hoist a solar panel array and can transmit 3G-speed internet signals over an area larger than a city.
Because stratospheric air currents blow in different directions depending on the altitude, Google can steer its balloons, crudely, by remotely raising or lowering their altitude. Using dozens or hundreds of them, Google plans to create regional internet networks for rural areas.
The company has named its experiment Project Loon, and is currently testing the idea with 30 balloons in New Zealand, where a sheep farmer became the first to connect. If all goes well, Google may launch 300 to 400 balloons that would circle the globe in New Zealand’s latitude—a ring that includes Australia, South Africa, and Argentina. The company doesn’t currently plan to cover the entire globe, which would require thousands of launches.
Some critics think the project will get grounded by geopolitical concerns: Sovereign nations consider the stratosphere part of their airspace, and some governments may not take kindly to Western internet balloons flying overhead. Other critics say many poor people lack the computers or devices needed to connect to the balloons in the first place. Time will tell if the drifting network floats or flops.
Robots could soon be flying alongside natural gas pipelines in Alaska for routine inspections. BP is testing an $85,000 drone equipped with a heat-sensing camera that could check for pipe leaks, potentially replacing helicopter flights, according to the Reuters news service. The 3-pound “Aeryon Scout” drone looks like a helicopter itself, but with four sets of blades. The Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to set rules for commercial drone use by 2015, and BP hopes to deploy its first drones soon afterward. By then, the company hopes technology will have improved its robotic inspector’s 20-minute flight time. —D.J.D.
The chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, Edith Ramirez, has asked the commission to investigate the practices of “patent trolls.” Similar to copyright trolls (See “Troll fees,” June 15, 2013), patent trolling businesses have no purpose other than to buy portfolios of patents and sue companies for violating them. One patent troll, for instance, in 2011 threatened legal action against coffee shops for violating a patent as they installed Wi-Fi networks.
With patents covering tens of thousands of software and hardware innovations in the smartphone age, it’s easier than ever for a company to violate a patent inadvertently. Ramirez wants the commission to find out whether trolling “patent-assertion entities” are ultimately encouraging competition (which is the whole purpose of patents) or simply shaking down unsuspecting businesses. Trolls file about 60 percent of patent suits, and businesses spend $29 billion a year fighting them, according to a study last year. —D.J.D.