At This Lab, ‘Mad Scientists’ Are Making Outlandish Tech a Reality

Mad scientists in science fiction get a bad rap. And it’s their own fault; they do weird things like stitching together corpses and re-animating them with electricity, as Dr. Victor Frankenstein did in Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein,” or building a time-traveling DeLorean powered by a plutonium-fueled nuclear reactor, a la Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) in the “Back to the Future” films.

But real-life “mad scientist” Rich DeVaul (he bears the actual title “head of mad science” at X, The Moonshot Factory) believes mad science also has a positive side; it also means daring to do the improbable and creating technology that can change the world.

At X, formed in 2010 as a division of Google, and now a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., DeVaul is the senior technical leader of a group of inventors, engineers and designers tackling global problems. Some of their solutions, such as a balloon-powered internet initiative called Project Loon, have achieved liftoff, while other proposals, like a prototype space cannon, stalled and fizzled. But all of X’s proposals have this in common: They’re so outlandish, they just might work. [10 Sci-Fi Predictions That Came True]

For example, X’s Project Loon was imagined as a fleet of balloons — each about the size of a tennis court — that would travel into the stratosphere and form a type of conveyer-belt network to provide high-speed internet access for users on the ground, according to the project website. These balloons could bring the internet to remote rural areas, or to regions affected by natural disasters.

Project Loon was put to the test after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, and over several months, the balloons brought internet service to more than 200,000 people on the island, IEEE Spectrumreported.

Other X projects in development include Project Wing, an autonomous drone delivery service, and Makani energy kites, which would fly in loops to generate wind power through their propellers.

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