With Project Wing, Google joins the ranks of Amazon and Matternet with its own attempt to build an effective drone delivery system. The announcement came Thursday in the form of a YouTube video released by Google and an extensive article by the Atlantic detailing the project.
Google X, the company’s experimental laboratory, has been testing prototypes, both on paper and in the field, for the last two years. The company’s team of engineers and experts has been testing what they call “self-flying vehicles” on a farm in Queensland, Australia, in order to avoid the strict regulations the Federal Aviation Administration imposes on corporate use of drones in the U.S. So far they have safely carried out 30 tests this month with their latest model.
Unlike the predominantly helicopter-like drones popular among hobbyists and demonstrated by Amazon, Google’s “self-flying vehicle” uses a design that features both a fixed wing and four rotors. Described as a “tail sitter” type aircraft, Google’s drone can ascend and descend like a helicopter and rotate to fly like a plane. Even more unique is the mechanism the drone uses to deliver packages, which utilizes a winch and cable to rapidly lower packages to the ground without the drone needing to descend.
But Project Wing isn’t all about developing a superior drone design; it’s also about establishing the infrastructure that would make the project work on a large scale. In his report in the Atlantic, deputy editor Alexis Madrigal describes the company’s concern with “edge cases,” incidents that won’t arise very often in the daily life of the drone, but when they do can cause the machine to stop functioning properly.
The company is tackling this problem with the same method they use for working out the kinks in the self-driving car. They run the machine normally but throw obstacles at it until requests assistance from a human operator. Then they go back and change the programming so that one issue won’t come up again. Unfortunately this process is far easier in the relatively constrained environment of the road, where birds, planes and even other drones aren’t flying at the machine from any direction.
Technological difficulties aren’t the only obstacle standing in the way of Google’s drone taking off. The Wall Street Journal reports that, for now, the FAA is not considering autonomous drone delivery, which will, for now, keep both Amazon and Google out of the air. But if Google’s development of the self-driving car has demonstrated anything, it’s that the company has a strong voice in shaping the legal regulations that affect their experimental projects. With both companies working to change policy it may not be long before we start seeing Google’s “self-flying vehicle” zipping around our neck of the woods.