The Four Things You'll Find At Google’s “Moonshot Factory” Today (And Four Things You Won't)
Housed in a former shopping mall a half mile from Google’s main campus, X (formerly Google X) is bursting at the seams with off-the-wall ideas. Employees skateboard and bike through the massive halls. There are dogs (of course).
This is X, Google’s “moonshot factory” - dedicated to solving really, really tough world problems with really, really crazy technology. Headed by Sergey Brin, the lab is working on projects that could transform how we get around, how we communicate, and even how the world generates its energy.
Here are the four major projects X is building today.
By 2020, Google's self-driving cars will hit the market. That gives X engineers just four more years to perfect their prototype.
But if current progress is any indication, four years is plenty of time. The self-driving cars have traveled more than a million miles without human help, the equivalent of 75 years of driving practice. The cars have tackled Lombard Street's hairpin turns, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Lake Tahoe.
There are still a few challenges to solve before the cars can be unleashed on the public, though. The cars haven't been tested in snow and can't tell the difference between a rock or a piece of paper, so they swerve to avoid both. They're still working out how to avoid pedestrians who are about to step into an intersection: one patent, granted to Google last fall, details ideas like an LCD screen saying "Coming through," a loudspeaker on the outside of the car, or even a robotic hand and eyes that would wave at the pedestrian.
The tiny, podlike cars were designed from the ground up; each has about $150,000 in equipment inside, meaning that you're not likely to see one as a personal vehicle right away--think taxis and shuttles first before personal car ownership.
The name implies that this idea is a moonshot, but this idea may graduate from X as soon as later this year.
The effort--which aims to supply high-speed Internet to underserved areas by launching Internet-connected balloons into the stratosphere--is being tested in Sri Lanka this year following successful tests in New Zealand, California, and Brazil. India and Indonesia are reportedly interested in using Project Loon balloons to bring broadband to their citizens.
In addition to the balloons, which are each as large as a tennis court and have a lifespan of four months, Project Loon includes a launcher, nicknamed Chicken Little, that can fill and launch the balloons in 30 minutes each. The balloons communicate with each other in the air and shift altitude to catch winds to move them where they need to go.
Wind turbines are a wonderful way to sustainably produce power, but not everywhere is suitable for wind turbines. You need lots of land and wind that consistently blows—and anti-wind activists who cite damaged viewsheds kill lots of projects before they even get started.
Enter Makani, which generates energy from wind using kites. Yep, you read that right. A specially designed kite launches into the air and then generates up to 600 kilowatts once in flight, sending the power back down through a tether to earth. 600 kilowatts is considered a “large-scale wind turbine” - enough to power over 100 homes.
Google purchased Makani Power in 2013 and rolled it into X that year. In late 2015, Google posted a number of open positions for Makani—including customer-facing positions like sales engineers—hinting that the prototype is soon to become a real product.
Move over, Amazon. Google’s getting into the drone product delivery business.
Announced in 2014, Project Wing involves autonomous drones, developed by MIT roboticist Nick Roy, that Google says will be able to bring people something they need in just a minute or two. This will, according to X director Astro Teller, transform people’s relationship to stuff. Why buy a drill that you use once a year or stockpile batteries if you can rent the drill or buy batteries one at a time?
The technology behind the project has evolved significantly since it was first announced. Originally Google designed a “tail-sitter” drone that the team scrapped in 2015 for an as-of-yet unannounced new design. The team also originally developed a delivery system where the drone would lower packages to the ground via winch, but a recently granted patent for “mobile delivery receptacles”—wheeled boxes on the ground that communicate with and guide the drones—that would accept a package from a drone and move it to a secure holding location.
There are still regulatory hurdles to overcome, but Google still says Project Wing could be making commercial package delivery by drone as early as 2017.
Those are the current four projects in development at X. Others have “graduated”—think Google Glass, or the technology that powers Android wearables—and others have quietly been killed after being deemed too out there. That’s an important part of the creative process at X: no idea is too crazy until it’s been tried. X tried to build a jetpack, for example, but scrapped the project because it was too energy inefficient. Other X team members built a tiny hoverboard, but weren’t able to scale it up to human size. X also took a serious look at building a space elevator—rejected because of a lack of viable construction materials—and teleportation—rejected after concluding the idea violates the laws of physics. But, pointed out journalist Eric Mack in a 2014 article, even those discussions ended up leading to insights into new encryption technologies.
That’s why X encourages ideas and solutions “that sound impossible today, almost like science fiction.” Because you never know where asking the right question might take you.
Going Google, by Sandeep Giri (The SPS Observer, Fall 2015)
Inside Google X, by Ben Perez (The SPS Observer, Fall 2015)