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Google aims to take wind power to new heights with acquisition of Makani Power

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May 27, 2013

Makani Power's Wing 7 prototype Airborne Wind Turbine (AWT) will now benefit from the back...

Makani Power's Wing 7 prototype Airborne Wind Turbine (AWT) will now benefit from the backing of Google X

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Having already put its Google Wallet where its mouth by backing a solar power tower plant in California to the tune of US$168 million, Google has now turned to wind power. According to a report from Bloomberg Businessweek, the search giant has acquired Makani Power, a California-based startup whose Airborne Wind Turbine (AWT) technology first caught our interest in 2011.

The Makani Power acquisition comes from Google X, Google’s not-so-secret research and development arm that focuses on "moonshot" technologies, such as the Google driverless car and Google Glass. This is apparently the first time Google has acquired a company for Google X, but it’s not the first time it has invested in the wind power company. Google was a primary investor providing $10 million in funding to Makani Power in 2006, following up with another $5 million the following year.

Makani Power has been acquired by Google for its Google X research and development arm

Makani Power also received a grant in 2010 from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) to help in development of its Wing 7 prototype. This is a 30 kW scale model of Makani’s planned 600 kW utility-scale devices that are designed to fly at altitudes of between 250 and 600 m (800 and 1,950 ft) and transmit electricity to the ground via a tether.

The tethered wings are outfitted with turbines that operate like conventional wind turbines, with air moving across the blades forcing them to rotate and drive a generator to produce electricity. However, Makani says fitting them to a flying wing provides increased performance in low winds, allowing the turbines to produce about twice the power of a traditional wind turbine of the same size, while requiring less materials to build.

Makani says their superior low wind performance means its AWTs would be economically viable in areas where conventional wind turbines aren’t. While the technology would by slightly cheaper to run than conventional wind turbines in good wind areas, Makami says their cost of energy would be half that of conventional turbines in typical onshore or offshore sites. The AWTs are intended to be installed in arrays over large areas, flying in a circular path and spaced approximately one tether-length apart to ensure they don’t become tangled.

Makani Power's AWT flies in a circular pattern

On its website, Makani says it recently completed the first-ever autonomous flight demonstrating all flight modes, including launch, hover and landing. It also confirmed the Google acquisition, saying the extra resources provided by the deal will help them accelerate development of the technology with the goal of making wind energy cost competitive with fossil fuels.

Video of the recent fully autonomous flight of the Wing 7 prototype can be seen in the following videos. The first shows the flight at 5x normal speed from a distance, while the second provides a closer view.

Sources: Makani Power, Bloomberg Businessweek

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
16 Comments

This is the first time I have ever thought an alternative power source was functionally insane. I do apologize for applying human legal terms to a machine. I am curious; is that the old airfield where the Mythbusters perform crash tests? If so it is very appropriate.

Robert Walther
27th May, 2013 @ 05:36 am PDT

That's the thing about engineers: Not afraid to defy "normal" to get results.

Of course, then there's hydraulic fracturing which scatters many tens of thousands of wells all over the country to pump precious waters plus chemicals below ground to produce climate killing hydro carbons.

Talk about insane...

moreover
27th May, 2013 @ 09:52 am PDT

Google is not stupid (although they have made a few bad bets, I guess). If they are willing to invest in this, they must have crunched the numbers and decided it is a pretty good idea. I would love to see this thing work out.

David Charles Leithauser
27th May, 2013 @ 10:37 am PDT

I was sure that the whole point of kite power was to get even higher than the 2000 meter mark, up into high wind regions of the atmosphere, where it never stops blowing. The fact that the launch and recovery is automated is great, but how automated is it if it should crash?

Chizzy
27th May, 2013 @ 10:52 am PDT

This is an overly complex, over engineered solution. Google investing in this is insane at best. There are hundreds of things that could go wrong and they turned the simplest solution in the history of energy (the windmill) to a complex autonomous flying robot which has to handle 100's of variables which include 3rd party objects crushing into one of these delicate science marvels. Google should have invested in making solar panels cheaper or more efficient. Making batteries last longer, recharge faster and cost a fraction of what they cost today.

Swobnair
27th May, 2013 @ 11:06 am PDT

Why not put turbines at the tips of windmill blades?

Bas Klein Bog
27th May, 2013 @ 11:35 am PDT

To those who think this is over-engineered, super complex, etc... I don't see how! This is one of the simplest designs out there, really. Take an RC plane, put 6 motor/generators on it, tether it to a gimbal that reel it in and rotate with the device. Not that complex

Google has engineered complex software that can make a car drive in traffic; making this kite/plane go in circles...not that hard.

As for foreign objects (like a small plane or hot air balloon), I think a wind-farm like this would be well marked on a map. Put lights on it. Radio transponders, literally dozens of solutions here. Birds? Well, we have that issue with regular windmills, we can figure this one out too.

I think this is one great idea, just gotta see if the testing shows good power/cost ratio. Also reminds me of the kite power generators that pull on the tether to spin a generator, then get pulled in by the spring, and repeat.

Noah Mayer
27th May, 2013 @ 12:14 pm PDT

the past 6 years or so has seen a revolution in wind power.

1) the windmill has gotten bigger better and stronger and cheaper to deploy while a huge explosion in capital research for power storage promises to make traditional wind power a big deal

2)---the alternative wind capturing ---everything else---has gone from nothing to something

a) kitesurfing as a sport

b) vertical wind turbine research while mostly bogus in comparison to normal windmill design (hoisted on a giant pole) underlies an explosion in the study of aerodynamics---

b1) nonvertical wind capturing research based on vibration of a string or moving a sheet or tube to capture vibrational energy have been toyed with

c)kite power for large ocean going vessels to supplement their fuel use

d) exotic wind power designs for high altitutde have arrived----mounted on large balloons and on wings---like this makani power. these tethered wind power designs all desire to take advantage of high wind speed.

e) exotic wind power designs based on thermal heat landscaping have been played with, including building wind turbines into actual buildings---or on the side of mountains whose heat radiates into the air creating windscapes.

all pretty amazing. google admitted to shoving 15 million into this idea already and now maybe just picked up the rest of the ownership as the company admits it cannot pay its bills.

while this flying wing might not be that interesting---IT DOES----look like there is a lot of truly excellent technology being developed here that could be used on other platforms for other purposes. ====namely energy scavenging the wind for NON grid applications. using turbinges on wings to produce energy is nothing new. many people have thought up this concept before (mistakenly as an idea for perpetual power during flight) -----HOWEVER---there is a lot to be said for the future of high tech and wind----

for example one thing i'm interested in is a traction kite/wing/foil that can work in ALL wind speed and be launched from the ground with no wind speed to reach 100 meters up. and be controlled with ONE line. yes one line.

zevulon
27th May, 2013 @ 12:45 pm PDT

Its nice to see where kite power is going. This may be a bit too complex for my tastes. I would like to see a simple but HUGE stable kite raise an extremely heavy weight along a high tower structure, then collapse so the weight would go down slowly, powering a generator. Repeat as needed.

ezeflyer
27th May, 2013 @ 01:36 pm PDT

This is a great example of one company looking beyond the next quarterly profit towards a worthy goal. Let's applaud Google for this.

As for the technology... wind power is attractive. According to Wikipedia, harnessing only 1 percent of the jet stream may meet the world's entire current energy needs. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jet_stream

Seth Miesters
27th May, 2013 @ 03:31 pm PDT

Does Google read Gizmag??? Plenty of tech to invest in instead of this.

S Michael
27th May, 2013 @ 04:59 pm PDT

These guys have been working on this for years and it has paid off.

Easy to install, easy to service, easy to move, easy to scale up, and able to be used in many different kinds of sites and even cheaper than regular mills. That is a winning combination.

This is one of the few out of the box wind power ideas that has a good chance to really make a difference IMHO.

Michaelc
27th May, 2013 @ 05:09 pm PDT

They may be able to create multi use by incorporating a wireless communication beacon for alleviating network traffic and as an alternate grid for the military.

Gary Richardson
27th May, 2013 @ 07:42 pm PDT

Nice. How apropos that they would use the Hawaiian word for 'Wind' and that the device resembles an albatross or frigate bird.

Kahua51
29th May, 2013 @ 04:22 pm PDT

Did anyone stop and think how many birds this idea will kill? A lot more than conventional wind turbines, I'm sure.

Tim Jonson
20th June, 2013 @ 06:42 pm PDT

Close assessment of Google's Makani generation shows that they have serious challenges and shortfalls. They will require dedicated remote land as safety requires preclude being near public roads or electrical lines, and the workers' safety and insurance organizations will be unsupportive of anyone being in such a wind farm. Similarly, significant portions of the wind farm will likely have to be shut down for maintenance of individual units. They probably won't work at all in winter conditions. And most tellingly, a Makani farm just won't outperform much simpler and more robust HAWTs of equivalent scale in the same conditions. Conventional wind turbines can be interspersed among working farms, taking up 1% of the land and adding significant revenue to productive agricultural concerns; Makani's can't. It's unlikely that onshore Makani farms of any scale or number will be built; offshore is only slightly more likely.

Mike Barnard
30th October, 2013 @ 10:53 pm PDT
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