Google X: The Secret Google Lab

X works to solve world problems with radical technology

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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When Google restructured itself as Alphabet in 2015, Google X was renamed X and became an independent Alphabet company.

For years, Google had a secret skunkworks lab called Google X. It's where the company cooked up things like space elevators, robotics projects, and the infamous self-driving car. Google has insane amounts of money, and Google's founders love big ideas. Google X explored secret "moon shot" ideas as ways to improve the human condition. As far as the secret projects went, the ideas that received press coverage were not that far-fetched—difficult, maybe, but not inconceivable.

The Google X lab became slightly less secret when reports on it appeared in the news. The renamed X company, like its predecessor, approaches radical ideas in an attempt to make the world a better place. The company doesn't release a lot of information on its secret projects, but you can access some information on active, graduated, and discontinued projects at its website. A few older Google X projects demonstrate the type of work X does.

Loon 

Loon is Google's idea for extending internet access into remote areas by way of weather balloons. Behind the scenes, this Google X project aims to raise cell towers into the stratosphere to deliver broader coverage.

According to the International Telecommunications Union, only one out of every two people have internet access, meaning that billions of the world's population have zero connectivity to the internet. With Loon, Google hopes to provide connectivity to rural areas and parts of the world that have experienced disasters that have disconnected them from the internet.

Loon "graduated" from X in July 2018, to become its own company under Alphabet.

Makani

Makani is a project started in 2006 to create kites that generate energy. The kites are tethered wind turbines, which would theoretically be more efficient than conventional, anchored turbines.

According to the World Energy Council, only 4 percent of the world's electricity comes from wind power, even though the world could be powered by wind 100 times over.

Wing

You may know about Amazon's drone delivery project. Well, as it turns out, Google has a drone delivery project, too, called Wing.

Wing has an unusual design. Rather than the usual straightforward helicopter or quadcopter approach favored by other drones, 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's 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 a 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. 

Google states that it is still "many years away" from turning this into a commercial project. Don't be surprised if Google 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. 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. 

Like Loon, Wing became a business within Alphabet in July 2018.

The high-priced but undersold Google Glass was one of the Google X secret projects that enjoyed a splashy launch but didn't catch the imagination of the public.

Waymo

Self-driving cars will be huge one day, potentially saving lives by removing human error from the equation (94 percent of all accidents are because of human error). Google is one of the first to get started in the self-driving car field with Google X, and they call this project Waymo.

Google's Waymo works through sensors positioned all around the car—on the top, front, and the sides—which work even at night to have a constant 360-degree view all around the vehicle. The onboard computer is the brains behind the operation so the car is always in full alert mode.

Waymo is listed as one of Google X's graduated projects, having left the secret lab in 2006 to become a real life, working project where the cars drive 25,000+ autonomous miles each day. In fact, since 2015, you've been able to catch a glimpse of these cars in Mountain View, California or Austin, TX if you happen to be in the area when they're testing the technology.

Space Elevators

Space elevators aren't an official X project, but it was considered. 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. Plus, the company that invents a working model could make a fortune in government contracts alone. However, that doesn't mean there's not a lot of money between the idea and final project. Eventually, it was determined to be not feasible at this time.

Tweeting Refrigerators

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, you could see nearly every appliance company come up with a variation of this idea. Fridges text you to tell you when you're low on milk, washers tell you that your laundry is done, and ovens let you look up recipes from the internet.

What was once an odd idea, is currently a marketable feature. The entire idea of connected appliances is a hot topic, one that Google is addressing with its Google Home devices.

Other X Projects

You can stay informed on other projects at the X Projects web page. Projects in development are listed alongside graduated and discontinued X projects.