Google X, the tech giant’s top secret experimental branch, recently announced that it will take over Makani Power, a startup that develops wind turbines that fly through the air like a kite, rather than being mounted on massive poles cemented into the ground. The acquisition is just one of many significant investments Google has made into renewable energy technologies, and indicates that airborne wind turbines might soon be ready to move out of the experimental phase and into commercial reality.
In case the term “kite power” gives you visions of Ben Franklin and the lightning storm, it’s important to point out that this kite-like system is far more sophisticated. Makani’s design consists of wind turbines mounted on unmanned, fixed-wing aircraft that are tethered to the ground (that’s where the kite part comes in). More accurately referred to as an Airborne Wind Turbine (AWT), the craft ascends to an altitude of 800 to 1,950 feet in order to take advantage of winds that are much stronger than anything feel here on the ground.
According to Makani, the design eliminates 90 percent of the material used in conventional wind turbines, and can access winds both at higher altitudes and above deep waters offshore — resources that are currently untapped. On-board generators create up to 600 kilowatts of electricity collected through dedicated turbines, which is then sent on to a tethered ground station.
Apparently, Google has been a long-time investor in Makani’s development of the airborne turbine, while also received support from the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program. The success of Makani’s test flights caught the attention of Astro Teller, the director of Google’s secretive research lab, and last February, he asked Chief Executive Officer Larry Page for permission to officially acquire the company. It’s one of the only known acquisitions by Google X, although there could be more.