[The Atlantic] For two years, Google has been working to build flying robot drone that can deliver products across a city in a minute or two. Project Wing is a secret drone program that’s been running for two years at Google X.
Taken with the company’s other robotics investments, Google’s corporate posture has become even more ambitious. Google doesn’t just want to organize all the world’s information. Google wants to organize all the world.
During this initial phase of development, Google landed on an unusual design called a tail sitter, a hybrid of a plane and a helicopter that takes off vertically, then rotates to a horizontal position for flying around. For delivery, it hovers and winches packages down to the ground. At the end of the tether, there’s a little bundle of electronics they call the “egg,” which detects that the package has hit the ground, detaches from the delivery, and is pulled back up into the body of the vehicle.
Andreas Raptopoulos and his company Matternet were launched from Singularity University. Matternet has been working to build a business around delivering medicines and other high-value goods in places without roads. They’ve tested in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Bhutan.
Raptopoulous’ vision for the future of drone delivery is very different from Google’s. He imagines not an anywhere-to-anywhere free for all, but that drones will carry goods to landing depots run by local people who build their own small businesses around the UAV service. He doesn’t see this type of service cutting into the logistics business in rich countries, at least not for a long while.
[Wall Street Journal] Amazon.com has also testing delivery drones and those were featured in a 60 minutes segment in December 2013. Domino’s Pizza tested delivering pies via drone in 2013.
Google said a 5-foot-wide single-wing prototype from its Project Wing carried supplies including candy bars, dog treats, cattle vaccines, water and radios to two farmers in Queensland, Australia, earlier this month. Google’s drones are 2½ feet high and have four propellers that move into different positions for different stages of flight. Packages fit into a gap in the middle of the wing. Google said it began test flights last year.
Google aims to have the drones flying programmed routes at altitudes of 130 feet to 200 feet with the push of a button. Precise navigation will be needed to pick the most efficient routes while controlling noise, respecting the privacy and safety of people on the ground and delivering items to an area the size of a doorstep, Google said.
In Europe, there is an entire organization—the Platform Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (PUCA)—devoted to bringing people together around the idea. Their vision of the future would see large cargo planes carrying between 2 and 20 tons of cargo flying relatively slowly and cheaply from places underserved by the existing infrastructure. One controller on the ground could handle 10 to 30 cargo planes flying at less than 300 miles per hour to save fuel. They could travel at all times of night and day, creating a more flexible in-filling logistics service to the current cargo system. In this scenario, cargo drones are like flying buses, not the speedy vanguard of two-minute delivery.
The journalist and novelist, Jonathan Ledgard is heading up a project with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology around cargo drones for Africa.