August 30, 2014
Google Reveals Secret Drone Project, Kept Hidden For Two Years
John Hopton for redOrbit.com - Your Universe OnlineGoogle shows prototypes being tested in Australia, delivering dog food to a remote farm in Queensland. Although said to be “years away from a product,” Astro Teller at Google X, the secretive tech research branch of the company, says that the drones “aspire to take another big chunk of the remaining friction of moving things around in the world,” following in the footsteps of history’s other great transportation innovations.
Google’s primary objective for their flying vehicles is to provide help to people in emergency situations. Along with the obvious advantages of being able to reach remote places affected by natural disasters, the drones could, for example, deliver defibrillator kits to people feared to be having a heart attack, moving more quickly than ambulances could. Dave Voss, the lead on Project Wing, told BBC News, "When you have a tool like this you can really allow the operators of those emergency services to add an entirely new dimension to the set of tools and solutions that they can think of."
As the dog food test demonstrates, there is also the potential for all manner of commercial products to be delivered by Google’s drones too. This brings inevitable comparisons to Amazon’s Prime Air project, the goal of which is to “get packages into customers' hands in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles.”
Reuters reports that the FAA allows limited use of drones within the United States for surveillance, law enforcement, atmospheric research and other applications. Google chose Australia for testing, reasoning that the country’s approach to the use of drones was more "progressive" than in some other places. Somewhere like the remote Queensland outback also no doubt helps to demonstrate the benefits of airborne delivery vehicles. But the US market would naturally be a significant target once a delivery network exists.
The small, sleek, white aircraft would be set at the start of their journey to follow pre-programmed routes, and then fly autonomously to their destination. This is in contrast to military drones, which are often under the constant control of a pilot on the ground. Google says that the drones have more in common with their much talked about self-driving car “than the remote-controlled airplanes people fly in parks on weekends.”
The next step for Google is to focus on making sure the vehicles, which have four electrically-driven propellers and a wingspan of approximately 1.5 meters, are able to navigate around each other and anything else that may be in the sky. They also intend to reduce the noise levels the vehicles produce, and to enhance delivery capability so that small targets, such as a doorstep, can be pinpointed.
The prototypes used in Australia flew at 40 meters, had rotors to enable vertical takeoff and landing and a fixed wing which allowed them to fly like a plane. This hybrid of a plane and a helicopter is referred to as a tail sitter. After taking off vertically, the Project Wing planes then rotate to a horizontal position for flying, and deliver their packages to the ground on a long tether.