Google launching Project Loon balloons at Castle Airport

ATWATER, Calif. (KFSN) -- Google is working to make the internet accessible to everyone with the help of balloons. And some of the key research is underway at Castle Airport in Atwater.

A small white dot in the sky over Merced first caught the eye of an Action News photographer back in October. He grabbed his camera and zoomed in to see what looked like a floating parachute. But it turned out to be one of several high altitude balloons launched by Google at Castle Airport.

Merced County Director of Economic Development, Mark Hendrickson, said, "We're just very privileged to be a small part of what hopefully in the end they will characterize as a big success."

The balloons are part of Project Loon, which aims to bring internet to people in remote and rural areas of the world. They run off solar power and float in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes. The balloons are equipped with a wireless communications technology that creates its own WiFi network. They could eventually be used during disasters, such as wildfires, where internet access is often an issue. Cal Fire Division Chief Mark Lawson said that would improve safety and response times.

Chief Lawson said, "We're looking at better resource accountability with an emphasis on personnel both emergency and civilian and our resources as well as the sharing of information and intelligence regarding the situation of the fire."

Google started renting a hangar at Castle Airport last spring for about $2,800 a month to work on Project Loon. That came just months after the tech giant started leasing the space behind fences to test its driverless cars. The two year agreement is worth nearly $460,000. County leaders hope both deals will help development at Castle Airport take off.

Hendrickson said, "We are on the cusp of approaching a hundred different leases at Castle so we have had some growth in recent years with some job creation and having Google in our backyard, and working with their professionals has been nothing short of extraordinary."

Google is already using the balloons in some areas of the world as part of a pilot program. They're controlled on the ground by engineers, and can stay in the air more than 100 days at a time. The company confirmed it is continuing to do tests at Castle Airport but did not say how often they're taking place.

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