7 Google Projects That Have World-Changing Potential

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Google, one of the world leaders in web services and mobile retail, is also developing a few high-profile projects through its Google X Labs that are advancing technology, clean energy, and fine art.  

1. Google Self-Driving Car Project

In 2011, Google acquired two small start-up companies, 510 Systems and Anthony’s Robots, that are developing technology for an autonomous car. After the buyouts, Google engineers modified three 2008 Toyota Prii (or Priuses) with a special rig that mounted on top of the cars to scan the physical world for any obstacles—pedestrians, other vehicles—on the road. The tech giant also developed special software called Google Chauffeur that used Google Maps, Street View, and other GPS-based technologies that served as navigation tools.

In 2012, the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles issued Google the first license for an autonomous car to test on public roads. Two years later, Google built a new prototype that didn't include a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals. Google is currently planning to test their fully functioning self-driving cars on busy streets throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

Google is aiming to sell driverless cars to the general public or its technology to car manufacturers such as Ford, GM, and Toyota sometime between 2017 and 2020. But city and state driving laws have yet to catch up with the speed of technology; self-driving cars are only legal for use on public streets in Nevada, Florida, California, and Michigan.

2. Project Tango

In 2013, Google developed technology, called Project Tango, that helps smartphones interact with the real world through complex 3D mapping and scanning. When Android devices are outfitted with motion sensitive cameras and special software, Project Tango can read the interior layout of buildings and homes as its users walk around. The smartphone then translates the 3D space into a graphical interface in real time. Developers and engineers could use the information to build applications that can assist the visually impaired or help people navigate unfamiliar areas. Google also hopes to use Project Tango to flesh out Google Maps and Street View with the interiors of public buildings.   

3. Project Ara

These days, most consumers upgrade their smartphones every couple of years, with only minor changes to things like screen size, camera clarity, or processing speed. This creates not just a lot of manufacturing costs, but also a lot of digital waste. Google is trying to simplify the smartphone upgrade cycle with Project Ara, a retail module phone that will allow consumers to swap out old parts for newer technology instead of buying an entirely new phone. Smartphone manufacturers like Samsung and Motorola would make a skeleton phone, allowing consumers to pick and choose which features they need and upgrade them whenever they're ready.

The plan is to introduce inexpensive "starter kits" that would include a simple frame, display, battery, low-end CPU, and Wi-Fi access to emerging smartphone markets in developing countries. Google wants to lower the barrier and cost to smartphone hardware, while also introducing potential new users to Google web services. Project Ara will launch in Puerto Rico sometime in 2015.

4. Google Art Project

In 2011, Google launched Art Project in a partnership with 17 international museums. The project features more than 32,000 important works of art from more than 40 countries. Google catalogs and reproduces each piece of art in very high quality resolution with vital information about the artwork; the project also offers its users a viral and interactive walk-through of paintings and sculptures using Street View technology.

Currently, Google Art Project features important pieces of art from 151 museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Tate Gallery in London, the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and the White House. Now anyone with an Internet connection can view priceless works of art from all around the world without leaving their home. 

5. Makani Power

In 2007, Google started funding Makani Power, a small startup company that developed technology to harness the power of wind through autonomous airborne wind turbines. These high-powered "kites" collect wind and transfer its energy back to Earth using a conductive tether. Although traditional wind turbines can only collect wind power as high as 600 feet up, Makani (Hawaiian for "wind") and Google—which officially acquired Makani Power in 2013—are building kites that can collect wind power up to 1000 feet high, where winds are stronger and more consistent. The Wing 7—a 26-foot-long self-flying kite—successfully produced 30 kilowatts of energy; the goal is to generate at least 600 kilowatts of energy with "kite power" to be competitive with fossil fuels, which Makani and Google hope could be a cheaper and cleaner alternative. "If we're successful, we can get rid of a huge part of the fossil fuels we use," said chief engineer Damon Vander Lind.     

6. Project Wing

In late 2014, Google announced Project Wing, which started with the idea of using drones to deliver defibrillators to people who were having heart attacks and evolved into self-flying drones that deliver products and disaster relief in remote areas in the world. The drones use a tether to drop an item from above; once the item is safely on the ground, the tether detaches and recoils. "Even just a few of these, being able to shuttle nearly continuously could service a very large number of people in an emergency situation," Google's Astro Teller told the BBC.

The first version of the drones had a wingspan of five feet and weighed in at about 19 pounds. This design was scrapped after tests in Australia showed that it didn’t do well in high winds, but Google has said they’re committed to the idea of drone delivery.

7. Project Loon

Project Loon is Google's ambitious plan to deliver high-speed Internet access to developing countries and remote areas without using traditional infrastructure like cell phone towers or underground cables. Instead, Google plans to use LTE bands and antennas attached to large helium-filled balloons to connect people to the Internet.

To create its telecommunication network, Google will deploy massive balloons—each 49 feet wide and 39 feet tall—made with sheets of polyethylene plastic in the stratosphere, 12 miles above the Earth's surface. Each balloon will create an LTE network of up to 24 miles on the ground. Each balloon would remain in service for about 100 days before being replaced.

Google believes that using balloons is more cost effective than launching communication satellites or building cell phone towers. And there's another benefit, too: There's no weather in the stratosphere, so if there's a hurricane or typhoon closer to Earth, the natural disaster below won't disrupt the network above, keeping it active on the ground, too.