Google’s latest moonshot could revolutionize the way we move stuff from point A to point B. As Google [X]’s Captain of Moonshots Astro Teller puts it, “Project Wing aspires to take a big chunk of the remaining friction out of moving.”
To achieve this lofty goal, Google has developed delivery drones that are able to carry a small package, fly autonomously to their destination, and lower the package to the ground through a thin cable. The drones are 1.5 meters wide and 0.8 meters tall and can take off from a fixed spot, like a helicopter, and then switch to flying like an airplane midflight.
According to an extensive profile in The Atlantic, a few dozen Googlers have been involved with the project since its inception two years ago. In its initial phase, Project Wing was led by Nick Roy, a roboticist on a sabbatical break from MIT; following Roy’s return to his regular job, drone expert Dave Vos took over.
Over the past year, Google has tested Project Wing in Australia, a country that has more permissive regulations concerning drones compared to the US, where the FTA issued a blanket ban on commercial development of unmanned air vehicles. The video below is a glimpse of the testing – Australian cattle rancher Neil Parfitt “orders” a package including dog food, from project lead Nick Roy, who promptly dispatches a drone with the package.
As you can see, Google is pretty confident that it solved all the major challenges of the project, though delivery drones are in no way ready for commercial deployment yet. Google still has tons of technical issues to solve, from designing a software interface for users to call drones, to finding a way to avoid dangerous obstacles like power lines, to tweaking the drone’s navigation software for a myriad of edge cases.
One of the biggest problems that Google needs to surmount is obtaining clearance to operate the drones. To do so, the company says it “wants a seat at the regulatory table.” Commercial drone operation may be illegal for now in the US, but Google has experience in clearing regulatory hurdles – see self-driving cars and smart contact lenses for proof.
What’s the end goal for Project Wing? Google says it initially thought about speeding up the process of delivering defibrillators to victims of heart attacks in remote places. But it found that integrating drone delivery in the emergency response system would cancel the speed advantage offered by using a drone in the first place.
Imagine receiving your Play Store order in 30 minutes or less
So Google is now focusing on speedy delivery of goods – the company’s Shopping Express retail service could greatly benefit from super-fast deliveries. Customers could order their groceries (or, why not, a smartphone from the Play Store) and have them in their front yards within minutes. Amazon is exploring the same idea, while Domino’s experimented with drones for pizza deliveries. But we’re still probably years away from scenarios like these.
For an in-depth look at Project Wing, check out The Atlantic’s article by Alexis Madrigal.