Monday, January 04, 2016
Google Must Be Crazy? A Web Balloon Crashes in South Africa
Call it “The Gods Must Be Crazy 2.0.”
In 1980, a film about a man from the indigenous San tribe in South Africa’s Kalahari desert who witnesses a Coke bottle fall from the sky and land near his feet became one of the most successful films in South African history.
A pilot dropped the bottle from a passing airplane, but since the San believe that gods in the heavens above provide for all their needs, the tribe reveres the bottle and imbues it with all sorts of powers and meanings. Since there is only one bottle, however, they soon begin to fight for possession of it.
Fast-forward 34 years, and another South African, this time a white sheep farmer from the Karoo desert part of the country, has stumbled onto a vastly more advanced artifact from the sky: a crashed, Internet-beaming, Project Loon test balloon from the future-focused Google X team.
According to a report Thursday in the Afrikaans-language Beeld newspaper, Urbanus Botha, who farms in the arid landscape of the Karoo south of Bloemfontein and Lesotho in the center of South Africa, came across the crashed balloon and initially thought it a weather balloon from the nearby weather station at De Aar. He called up the station’s office but nobody picked up, so he packed it into his pickup truck, thinking that its plastic could come in handy as he planned to repaint his shed.
“The huge piece of plastic filled my whole van,” Botha said.
Botha didn’t know what to make of the balloon, especially since it contained several electronic components. His 20-year-old daughter, Sarita, was just as intrigued, and took photos of the balloon on her smartphone, sending them to her brothers John, 30, and Benny, 27. The brothers identified the words “Made in the USA” and “Google X” on the pictures, and so Googled “Google X” and balloons.
“We realized the balloon was part of the Google Loon Project,” Sarita told Beeld.
Project Loon is an ambitious effort by Google to beam Internet access to billions of unconnected people from high-altitude, wind-borne balloons circling the earth.
In an email to the family, an engineer from Google in California confirmed that the object in the pictures sent by the family looked like a Google X balloon and said a local representative would come by to collect it.
Project Loon should have a “semipermanent” ring of balloons floating across the Southern Hemisphere in the next year or so, Google says.
A balloon crashed in Nevada in June, damaging a utility pole, and Google has built a balloon-recovery team.
Corrections & Amplifications
Urbanus Botha’s farm is in the Karoo region of South Africa. An earlier version of this post incorrectly said it was in the Kalahari.