Google revealed top-secret plans yesterday to send balloons to the edge of space with the lofty aim of bringing the internet to the two-thirds of the global population now without web access.
Scientists from the technology giant released up to 30 helium-filled test balloons flying 20 kilometres above Christchurch in New Zealand, carrying antennae linked to ground base stations.
While still in an early stage, Project Loon hopes eventually to launch thousands of balloons to provide internet to remote parts of the world, allowing the more than four billion people with no access to get online.
It may also be used to help after natural disasters, when existing communication infrastructure is affected.
"Project Loon is an experimental technology for balloon-powered internet access," the company said on its latest project from its clandestine Google X laboratory, "where we work on radical, sci-fi-sounding technology solutions to solve really big world problems".
It added: "Balloons, carried by the wind at altitudes twice as high as commercial planes, can beam internet access to the ground at speeds similar to today's 3G networks or faster.
"It is very early days, but we think a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on the stratospheric winds, might be a way to provide affordable internet access to rural, remote and underserved areas down on earth below, or help after disasters, when existing communication infrastructure is affected."
The project works by connecting local internet infrastructure to ground stations and beaming signals to the balloons, which are self-powered using solar panels.
The balloons, once in the stratosphere, will be twice as high as commercial airliners and barely visible to the naked eye.
They communicate with one another, forming a mesh network in the sky. A user below attaches a web antenna to the side of his house that can send and receive data signals from the balloons passing overhead.
Some 50 people were chosen to take part in the trial and were able to link to the web.
The first person to get Google balloon-powered internet was Charles Nimmo, a farmer and entrepreneur in the small town of Leeston.
Nimmo found the experience a little bemusing after he was one of 50 locals who signed up to be a tester for a project that was so secret, no one would explain to them what was happening. Technicians came to the volunteers' homes and attached to the outside walls bright red receivers the size of basketballs and resembling giant Google map pins.
He said he received web access for about 15 minutes before the transmitting balloon he was relying on floated out of range.
"It's been weird," he told The New Zealand Herald. "But it's been exciting to be part of something new."
Google's goal is to have a ring of balloons - each the length of a small light aircraft when fully inflated - circling the earth. It did not say how much it was investing in the project.
"The idea may sound a bit crazy - and that's part of the reason we're calling it Project Loon - but there's solid science behind it," Google said. "This is still highly experimental technology and we have a long way to go."
Project leader Mike Cassidy said that the technology might allow countries to leapfrog the expense of installing fibre-optic cable. "It's a huge moonshot, a really big goal to go after. The power of the internet is probably one of the most transformative technologies of our time."
Google said it wanted to set up other pilot projects in countries at the same latitude as New Zealand, including Australia and Argentina, based on the stratospheric conditions.