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Google hitches high-flying ride on PE balloon

By: Frank Antosiewicz

August 13, 2013

Rising to the special needs of Google Inc., Raven Industries Inc. is supplying balloons made of ultrathin polyethylene film for a pilot study of a novel way to supply Internet service in a remote area of New Zealand.

As far-fetched as it may sound, the plan, labeled Project Loon, uses balloons designed and built by Raven's Aerostar division. The first trial involved 30 balloons and provided Internet access for an area covering roughly 3,800 square miles around Christchurch, New Zealand.

"This is a very exciting day. Solving the challenge of improved Internet access in developing nations and rural areas has the potential to improve and save lives — from improved medical care, to crisis and disaster response, to better crops for farmers struggling to feed a growing world population," said Dan Rykhus, president and CEO of Raven, in a news release.

The balloons are designed to be 60 feet tall and fly at an altitude of 66,000 feet. Teams can control the path of the balloons as they move through the sky. They can move up and down in the stratosphere to find the right speed and direction. Mountain View, Calif.-based Google has developed the software to control a fleet of the balloons.

Google said the project came about because a plan by chief technical architect Rich DeVaul proved unfeasible because of a lack of Internet access. He decided to take a look at the old idea of using balloons for communications.

However, rather than using expensive tethered balloons or stratospheric dirigibles, he aired the idea that lots of free-floating balloons might be more cost-effective. Some radio experts doubted the plan, but DeVaul's spreadsheet suggested it could work.

Raven's background with balloons dates back to the 1950s. NASA has used them to soar above 99 percent of the atmosphere. Red Bull Stratos used a Raven Aerostar zero-pressure balloon for Felix Baumgartner's historic 128,000-foot freefall from space in October.

Raven Aerostar designed and sewed the balloon envelopes, which are put together in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Sulphur Springs, Texas. Google said the rest of the hardware is built in-house or purchased from various other vendors. Raven also helped design the flight-control system, which also allows it to land safely. The design allows for the balloon to stay airborne for about 100 days.

The balloon idea is still a long way from completion, but Project Loon does offer the potential to lead to more Internet connectivity in places where the challenges and cost have been prohibitive.

Raven communications manager Kristin Tilus said typical film can become brittle in extreme cold, but the Raven material can withstand temperatures as low as minus 58° F. Raven has 1,400 employees, with about 300 working at the Engineered Films division.

Raven adds reclaim line

Raven Engineered Films, which supplies the film used for the balloons, is using a new reclaim line that was designed by ADG Solutions of Fairfield, Conn. It enables the company to recover polymers from internal use and pelletize them for re-use.

The company produces multilayer PE film for agricultural, construction, environmental and other uses. Raven had difficulty reclaiming the material that came from start-ups, job changes and edge trim, and formerly either sent it to a reclaim specialist or a landfill.

ADG Solutions used a Polycycle cascade reclaim system along with an Epic III process-control system from Davis-Standard. It supplied the shredding/conveying system, automatic screen changer and pellet-handling system.

The company said the new system can reprocess up to 15 million pounds a year.

The Engineered Films division is located in Raven's 330,000-square-foot facility in Sioux Falls, where Raven is based.