Google X, the web titan’s secretive special projects lab, has revealed that it’s working on a drone-based delivery system called Project Wing. Outwardly, the Google X project sounds a lot like Amazon’s Prime Air, but a closer inspection reveals that Google has loftier goals than air-dropping emergency bottles of sriracha.
The original concept behind Project Wing — which has been in development for more than two years — was to deliver defibrillators to heart attack sufferers within two minutes. Google says it ran into issues trying to integrate its tech with the USA’s existing 911 and emergency services systems, and so the focus of the project shifted to the much more general problem of same-day deliveries, disaster relief, and generally delivering to places that same- and next-day couriers might not reach.
In the video below, you can see one of Project Wing’s first test flights, delivering dog food to a farmer in Australia. All 31 of Project Wing’s full-scale test flights have been conducted in Australia, which has a more permissive “remotely piloted aircraft” (i.e. domestic drones) policy than the US. There’s no word on when Project Wing might be commercialized, but it’s at least a couple of years away (there’s a lot of FAA red tape to sort out first).
While most work in small-scale autonomous drones and remotely piloted aircraft generally revolves around quadcopters, Google X instead opted for a tail-sitter design for Project Wing. As the name implies, a Project Wing aircraft takes off and lands on its tail — but cruises horizontally, like a normal plane. This method of vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) was trialed in some early aircraft designs, but thrust vectoring (the Harrier Jump Jet) was ultimately deemed more practical for manned flight.
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The Project Wing aircraft has four electric motors, a wingspan of around five feet (1.5m), and weighs just under 19 pounds (8.6kg). Fully loaded, the drones apparently weigh 22 pounds — so, at least for now, they have a rather puny payload of just three pounds. The drone is outfitted with the usual set of radios and sensors to allow for autonomous flight — but there’s also a camera, which can be used by a remote pilot to ensure that the aircraft drops its package in a sensible location.
If you watch the video, you’ll notice that packages are actually dropped from altitude, using a winch and fishing line. Early in the project, Google found that people wanted to collect packages directly from the drone — which is dangerous, when you have four propellers whizzing around at high speed. The air-drop solution is much more graceful, and also allows the drone to stay away from a large variety of low-altitude obstacles (humans, dogs, cars, telephone lines, trees…)
As we mentioned earlier, the original concept for Project Wing was rapid delivery of defibrillators to people suffering from heart attacks — but it was too difficult to integrate with the existing 911 and emergency services systems. Now it seems Google X is simply trying to create a functional, safe, autonomous drone-based delivery system, with no specific goal in mind. “Throughout history there have been a series of innovations that have each taken a huge chunk out of the friction of moving things around,” says Astro Teller, director of Google X labs. “FedEx overnight delivery has absolutely changed the world again. We’re starting to see same-day service actually change the world,” Teller tells The Atlantic. “Why would we think that the next 10x — being able to get something in just a minute or two — wouldn’t change the world?”
Author: By Sebastian Anthony
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