Google X, the Secret Google Lab

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: A bicyclist rides by a Google self-driving car at the Google headquarters on September 25, 2012 in Mountain View, California.
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Google has a secret skunkworks lab called Google X.  Google X also happens to also be the name of a failed Google labs project. Google's super secret Google X lab is where Google cooks up things like space elevators, robotics projects, and the infamous self-driving car. The lab is slightly less secret since reports first broke the story on it, although Google X still does not divulge the full list of projects.

Some are many years down the line, and some may never come to fruition. 

Google/Alphabet has been increasingly interested in consumer products, robotics, and space exploration. Google has insane amounts of money, and Google's founders love big ideas. As far as it goes, the ideas with some press coverage are not that far-fetched. Some may be difficult, but they're not inconceivable.

Project Loon 

Project Loon is an idea to extend internet access in remote areas by using weather balloons. 

Makani

Makani is a project to create kites that generate energy. Basically, they're tethered wind turbines, which would theoretically be more efficient than conventional anchored turbines. 

Project Wing

You probably heard about Amazon's drone delivery project. Well, as it turns out, Google has a drone delivery project, too. 

Project Wing has an unusual design. Rather than the usual straightforward helicopter or quadcopter approach favored by other drones, Project Wing launches from a position sitting on its tail (like rockets launch, but without the super high velocity) and then turns to a horizontal position when it is in the air.

 It then turns back to the vertical position to hover for delivery. 

Package delivery is also a bit different. Rather than landing, the drone hovers in place vertically and then lowers the package to the ground by cable. It detects when the package has hit land and then releases it from the cable. The cable is then raised back into the drone, which turns back to horizontal position to zoom away.

 

This delivery mechanism solves a couple of problems. Dropping things from great heights would obviously be dangerous to the payload and any objects or people who happened to be beneath it. Lowering a bladed drone in any populated area is also dangerous, as demonstrated by the tragic death of a 19-year-old remote control helicopter enthusiast when he lost control of his own device and was struck in the head.

Google states that they are still "many years away" from turning this into a commercial project. Don't be surprised if Google even abandons the notion without launching it. Such is the nature of crazy ideas, or "moonshots" as Google refers to them.

Aside from competing with Amazon in drone delivery service, Google could use the drones for humanitarian aid, such as delivering medicine to areas experiencing epidemic outbreaks or delivering items to particularly remote areas that aren't easily accessible by other means. In fact, the future of Google's Project Wing may be brighter in areas outside the United States, where increasing distrust of drones (both over safety and spying concerns) would make setting up a delivery service much more difficult. The last thing Google needs is another privacy scare.

 

Why the public release of a project that is still many years away from a product? Google is actively seeking "partners" for Project Wing including industry professionals in government, non-profit, aviation, and education. Partners who, as Google put it, can help them "bring this technology into the world safely." 

Space Elevators

Google does not list this idea as an official Google X project, but it is rumored to be on their list. This is an idea that's been around for a while, and it's a common staple in science fiction stories. Basically, you take a space station that orbits the earth at the same speed as the earth's rotation, so it's always in a fixed spot.

Next, you connect that space station to the earth using a gigantic and really strong cable. You can then use that cable to pull objects and people to space without nearly as much energy expenditure as you'd need to launch rockets. You could use this for observation or as a launching pad for space missions.

It's a great idea for scientists, tourists, and astronauts. And the company that invents a working model could make a fortune in government contracts alone. That doesn't mean there's not a lot of money between idea and final project.

Tweeting Refrigerators

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I saw nearly every appliance company come up with a variation of this. Fridges text you to tell you you're low on milk, washers tell you that your laundry is done, and ovens that let you look up recipes on the Internet. These haven't been huge consumer hits - yet, but they will be, and it's more likely than not that Google will be playing catch-up with this idea, just like they were with Android tablets. I'm surprised nobody has thought to market retrofitted "dumb" appliances with cheap Android tablets.

In fact, the entire idea of connected appliances was already announced at the Google developer conference, Google I/O. The framework is called Android@Home, and it allows smart communication between devices. What would be really cool and innovative is if Google also introduced the devices. I'd love to see what Google would do with an energy efficient washer or how they'd solve the problem with last year's crop of smart fridges - you have to scan in receipts or otherwise enter all the products you purchase. A truly smart fridge would just know what's in it.

Self-Driving Cars

Self-driving cars were announced years ago, and they did a good job of keeping a lid on the project until they announced it, unlike the "Google Phone" rumors that circulated for years before they released Android. According to the Times article, the idea most likely to see consumer release soon is the driver-less car. They've certainly gained the most media attention, and Google may be looking for ways to manufacture them inside the US. My bet is they strike a deal with Tesla Motors or a similar company instead of going with one of the big automakers.