If you haven't hear of Project Loon, it's one of the crazy-sounding, mega-futuristic 'moonshot' ideas to come out of Google's secretive Google[x] Lab, which is probably housed in a hollowed-out volcano. The idea is to make wireless internet access available anywhere in the world, using a network of floating balloons.
The idea has sounded a bit Wi-Pie-in-the-sky until now, but this week Google published a patent that gives some more detail on how it'll work. In an area that needs internet access - the patent mentions places where there's been a natural disaster, but it could equally apply to music festivals - a lorry arrives with a shipping container on the back. Inside the container is a series of boxes, each containing a self-launching balloon, complete with the means to generate its own hydrogen. The lorry stops, the driver hits a button, and the shipping container opens at the top. One by one, weather balloons rise from the box, each carrying a box o' wireless tricks. Within hours, any device in the area can access the internet at speeds equivalent to 3G.
The balloons don't just blow away like a carelessly unleashed helium-filled Spongebob Squarepants. They hover at around 20km up (about twice a plane's cruising height), using the different directions winds travel at different heights to navigate automatically.
One rather interesting aspect of the system is that it makes its own hydrogen for the balloons: the shipping container can draw power from solar panels on top or a retractable wind turbine, and the boxes inside use that power to extract hydrogen from water (via electrolysis) to fill the balloons. The patent describes the system as being automated and requiring no special training to deploy, so if Project Loon does get made, it'll be an internet-in-a-box solution for anywhere the internet's needed but there isn't the infrastructure to provide it: earthquake zones, flooded regions, remote rural areas and possibly Glastonbury/Burning Man/CES 2017.