CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand —
"It's a very fundamentally democratic thing that what links everyone together is the sky and the winds," said Richard DeVaul, an MIT-trained scientist who founded Project Loon and helped develop Google Glass, hidden camera-equipped eyeglasses with a tiny computer display that responds to voice commands.
DeVaul initially thought their biggest challenge would be establishing the radio links from earth to sky, but in the end, one of the most complex parts was hand building strong, light, durable balloons that could handle temperature and pressure swings in the stratosphere.
Google engineers studied balloon science from NASA, the Defense Department and the Jet Propulsion Lab to design their own airships made of plastic films similar to grocery bags. Hundreds have been built so far.
He said they wouldn't interfere with aircraft because they fly well below satellites and twice as high as airplanes, and they downplayed concerns about surveillance, emphasizing that they would not carry cameras or any other extraneous equipment.
The balloons would be guided to collection points and replaced periodically. In cases when they failed, a parachute would deploy.
While there had been rumors, until now Google had refused to confirm the project. But there have been hints: In April, Google's executive chairman tweeted "For every person online, there are two who are not. By the end of the decade, everyone on Earth will be connected," prompting a flurry of speculative reports.
And international aid groups have been pushing for more connectivity for more than a decade.
In pilot projects, African farmers solved disease outbreaks after searching the Web, while in Bangladesh "online schools" bring teachers from Dhaka to children in remote classrooms through large screens and video conferencing.
Many experts said the project has the potential to fast-forward developing nations into the digital age, possibly impacting far more people than the Google X lab's first two projects: The glasses and a fleet of self-driving cars that have already logged hundreds of thousands of accident-free miles.