Google X acquires kite-power startup Makani

The research unit's "focus on real atoms, not bits" is expanding to include the startup's work on tethered flying wings that are designed to generate 600 kilowatts of power.

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3 min read
A Makani Power prototype power-generating kite
A Makani Power prototype power-generating kite. Martin LaMonica/CNET

Google is in the process of acquiring Makani Power, a startup building power-generating cable-tethered flying wings, and is incorporating the technology within its Google X "moonshots" division.

"We look forward to working with our new colleagues at Google[x] to make airborne wind a cost-effective reality," the company said on its Web site. "This formalizes a long and productive relationship between our two companies, and will provide Makani with the resources to accelerate our work to make wind energy cost competitive with fossil fuels."

The acquisition was reported Wednesday in a BusinessWeek story about Google X, the company's secretive research unit. Google executives hope Google X will not just produce pioneering technology, but unlike some earlier labs such as Xerox's famous PARC, also will make a commercial success out of it.

Google, a consumer of huge amounts of power, has been trying to improve the energy industry through investments, efficiency, and purchase agreements, and the Makani deal fits into that push. Astro Teller, Google X's captain of moonshots (which is to say its leader) explained the acquisition with this statement:

Creating clean energy is one of the most pressing issues facing the world, and Google for years has been interested in helping to solve this problem. Makani Power's technology has opened the door to a radical new approach to wind energy. They've turned a technology that today involves hundreds of tons of steel and precious open space into a problem that can be solved with really intelligent software. We're looking forward to bringing them into Google[x].

Plenty of Silicon Valley firms have made big profits from software, which can be sold over and over once written and doesn't require a factory to build. Google is largely a software engineering organization, too, but it's been anchored to hardware since it builds its own servers and runs its own data centers. It also sells its own consumer-focused hardware such as its Motorola Mobility phones and Chromebook Pixel laptops.

Google X solidifies this connection to the real world. "Google X is focused on real atoms and not bits," Google Chief Executive Larry Page said last week while fielding questions at Google I/O.

Makani is trying to crack energy-generation problems with self-piloting flying wings tethered to a base station. They take off like helicopters using rotors that become electrical power generators when the wing reaches an altitude somewhere between 800 and 2,000 feet, where winds are stronger and more consistent.

The wing flies in vertical circles like a kite can; the looping flight pattern is somewhat like the arc traced by tip of a conventional wind turbine. When wind speeds drop, the wing goes back into a hover mode and returns to its base station.

Makani last week tested a kite that can generate 30 kilowatts of power, but it expects to build production models that can create 600 kilowatts. A conventional wind turbine tower can generate 3,000 kilowatts, but requires vastly more material to build, the company said.

The BusinessWeek piece bears the title "Inside Google's Secret Lab," but doesn't reveal many other secret projects actually under way. Google X's best-known efforts are the self-driving car and Google Glass computerized eyewear.

One possible project at Google X, though, is work to bring broadband Internet access to undeveloped parts of the world using radio communications from balloons, according to the article.

The article did debunk one rumored project at Google X, though, a space elevator that sci-fi fans long have dreamed might cheaply carry people and equipment into orbit. It's not a project for Google X, according to the article.