French space agency CNES will join Google in the online-search giant’s ambitious project to launch a fleet of stratospheric balloons to provide Internet access to rural and underserved parts of the globe.

Dubbed Project Loon, the fleet of balloons would be carried by winds some 18 to 20 km above the Earth – higher than commercial airlines and weather – and powered by solar panels.

Using a two-way link, Internet signals would be transmitted up to the balloon from the ground and relayed to other balloons before being sent back down, where they would be picked up by outside antennas or LTE-enabled phones. 

CNES, which is supporting the project with balloon engineering expertise acquired over the past 50 years, says the connection speed would be fast enough to stream videos. 

“Collaborations like this bring down barriers and spawn new cross-disciplinary projects,” CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall said in a Dec. 11 news release announcing the venture. “We are proud to be providing our expertise while benefiting in return from the assistance of such a great global company.” 

CNES will contribute to ongoing balloon flight analysis and development of next-generation balloons. With help from Google, CNES will conduct Strateole-type long-duration balloon campaigns similar to the Concordiasi balloon project in 2011, but with a wider stratospheric coverage. 

“Internet connectivity can improve lives, but more than 4 billion people still don’t have access today. No single solution can solve such a big, complex problem,” said Mike Cassidy, Google vice president in charge of Project Loon. “That’s why we’re working with experts from all over the world, such as CNES, to invest in new technologies like Project Loon that can use the winds to provide Internet to rural and remote places.”

Project Loon began in June 2013 with an experimental pilot in New Zealand that was followed by additional tests in California and northeast Brazil.

Less expensive to launch and operate than satellites, stratospheric balloons filled with hydrogen or helium can carry several hundred kilograms to 40 km altitude for 24 hr.

In some cases, payload nacelles can be recovered from the balloons and reused, with the same instruments or sensors flying two or three times in a matter of days during a campaign, in some cases. In addition, balloons can be launched with simple infrastructure from a variety of locations. 

CNES has been designing, manufacturing and releasing atmospheric balloons for three decades, developing a variety of platforms adapted for exploration. The agency currently employs a staff of 60 dedicated to balloon research at two main sites, in Toulouse and Aire-sur-l’Adour in southwestern France. The program costs on average about 1.2% of France’s annual total space budget.