Google this: Where did one of the Internet giant’s high-tech, high-atmosphere balloons land?
If Google knows, it’s not saying.
But this much we do know — or at least we were told Thursday by the Federal Aviation Administration: It dropped from the sky Wednesday somewhere over Toppenish.
An FAA spokesman in Auburn told the Yakima Herald-Republic that Google notified the federal agency the device was descending so that air traffic control could track it and ensure that all aircraft stayed safely out of its path.
The fate of the falling device remains unknown.
Reached by email, Google declined to provide any details. But the company runs a program known as Project Loon that is developing small, solar-powered balloons to broadcast a wireless Internet signal over remote areas.
Tests of the technology began with a pilot project in New Zealand last summer, and now, according to the project’s website, research flights are ongoing in California’s Central Valley.
Typically, according to the Project Loon website, the balloons stay above 60,000 feet, safely above the zone used by commercial airplanes. An inflated balloon of polyethylene plastic about 45 feet wide carries the electronics and solar panels that hang below.
No one reported a falling balloon to police or fire departments, according to spokesmen for the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office and Yakima County Fire District No. 5, which serves most of the Lower Valley, including areas around Toppenish. The air traffic controllers working at the Yakima Air Terminal on Thursday said they had not heard about the balloon either.
It is unknown if the balloon’s descent above the Toppenish area was intentional or accidental. According to the project’s website, Google is working to develop balloons that can stay in the atmosphere for more than 100 days, but they do eventually need to land and be picked up.
According to the website, the plan is “to take our balloons down over preselected, safe recovery zones so we can easily collect them to reuse and recycle their parts. In the event of an unexpected landing, every Loon balloon is equipped with a parachute to slow its descent.”
The devices are controlled by air pumps that can raise or lower the balloons into different air currents, which can then push them to desired locations. Over the long term, Google hopes a network of balloons around the globe will provide Internet access to billions of people who currently lack it.