Google Thinks Autonomous Flying Drones Are the Future of Clean Energy

Google just bought Makani, which makes autonomous wind-harvesting kites. Is this the future of clean power?

Images: Makani

Google just bought one of the most promising airborne drones in development—it's not for surveillance, it's not for the military, and it's not for hobbyists. It's for making clean energy. It's essentially a giant, autonomous wind turbine that takes to the sky like a mechanical kite. And it may be integral to the future of wind power.

Makani Power, who we've covered extensively in the past, has been acquired by Google X, the search giant's secretive research and investment arm. Makani seems pretty pumped. The cleantech concern has for years pursued a unique goal: float kite-like wind turbines higher into the air, where they can harness the more consistent, more powerful wind that their earthbound tri-bladed brethren can't reach. Makani designed these drone kites to automatically take off and adjust themselves to the windstream to maximize energy production.

It's always seemed like a novel concept, but many have written it off as lofty (seriously, I tried like three adjectives and there's no way around a pun here). But Makani insists it's anything but. The airborne drone kites are lighter and cheaper to build than conventional wind turbines. Makani's CEO, Corwin Hardham, says it will soon be able to build turbines that generate power for 3 cents per kilowatt hour—that's cheaper than the dirt-cheap coal power that currently provides much of the nation's power supply.

Cleantech expert Silvio Marcacci explains that Makani's genius lies its "using a fraction of the material necessary for a standard wind turbine." He notes that "A conventional 1-megawatt wind turbine can weigh more than 100 tons, but Makani’s airborne turbine only uses a carbon-fiber wing and lightweight rotors of their own creation. The company says its 1-megawatt airborne turbine system will weigh a tenth as much and have an installed price half a normal turbine, but with the same rated power."

That's a lot less steel and many fewer materials to haul around to a build site. It's also a lot less space. Traditional turbines take up a significant amount of space—which is fine, much of the time, as they can be integrated into farmland or underdeveloped areas. But if wind production is going to expand to the point that it provides a serious portion of nationwide energy supply, it'd be nice not to limit turbine placement to plains and farmlands. 

Google agreed. "They’ve turned a technology that today involves hundreds of tons of steel and precious open space into a problem that can be solved with really intelligent software,” Google X Director Astro Teller said. That technology also includes the ability to stay aloft when wind is scarce, using minimal power, and to correct for violent winds or even decide to return to ground if hurricane-force gusts approach.

Their technology has turned heads before: The secured a $3 million grant from ARPA-E, the government's clean energy development division (which we in our Energy Fixers doc), and had received an infusion of cash from Google once before. 

But the Google X deal was probably truly sealed after Makani completed its biggest milestone yet—its first successful fully autonomous wind drone launch on May 9th. 

No wonder Google was impressed. This proves that Makani—which was aiming for commercial production by 2015 before the Google acquisition—isn't just a novelty act, the product of high-minded tinkerers pushing the envelope. This proves that a new face of wind power may be on the threshold of changing the game altogether. See, Makani's technology also allows wind power to become a force in areas that aren't considered as windy—it's windier the higher up you go—and may eventually transform wind power into a viable individual or community power source, as rooftop solar panels are now. After all, you'll, no longer need wide open fields to build them—just ample airspace. 

Of course, questions persist: if Makani turbines proliferate, it may prove a headache for the FAA—more winged vehicles circling the skies, along with other drones, private planes, and who knows what else. Makani will no doubt have to address safety concerns, too; nobody wants to see one of those drone-kites come unleashed. And 3 cents per kilowatt hour seems pretty ambitious; I'll believe that wind drones are cheaper than coal power when we get the meter readings.

But those are clearly surmountable obstacles; this is a major step towards a more thoroughly wind powered world. Remember, researchers like Stanford's Mark Jacobson and UC Davis' Mark A. Delucchi think that wind could provide 50% of the world's power supply in just 20-40 years. Technology like Makani's could help make that projection more feasible than critics thought. So really, it's no wonder that Google is betting big here—Makani's kite drones may be a serious player in the near future of clean energy.