The Atlantic reports that Google's skunkworks Google X team has spent the last two years working on a secret program. More than a loosely sketched concept like the teaser Amazon pushed out earlier this year, Google appears to be serious about delivery in the air—getting products from the warehouse to their destination in about two minutes.
Alexis Madrigal has a very nice scoop about the secretive Project Wing, a Sergey Brin concept that's been fleshed out by top engineers recruited specifically for the task. Madrigal reports that Google developed a special kind of unmanned arial vehicle called a "tail sitter" with a few tweaks that make it specially designed for delivery.
...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.
Update: Google just posted this promotional video to YouTube, showing Project Wing in action.
The tail sitter concept isn't a new one, but the winch that drops packages from the sky to your door stop deserves some attention. It's an innovative idea, helping you avoid a lot of safety and logistics problems that arise when you need to remotely land a vehicle with spinning blades. But the winch comes with its own problems, like how to avoid crushing people who are waiting for their gear.
Mechanical engineer Joanna Cohen, trained at Cal Tech and MIT, designed the contraption. It consists of a few key parts. The first is the winch itself, which spools out the hi-grade fishing line. The second is the "egg," the little gadget that goes down with the package, detects that it has reached the ground, releases the delivery, and signals that it should be cranked back up to the hovering UAV. If something goes wrong, there is an emergency release mechanism at the top of the line—"basically a razor blade," Cohen told me—that allows the UAV to cut and fly.
When a package comes hurtling down, it moves at about 10 meters per second (about 22 miles per hour). When it gets close to the ground, the winch slows the fall to 2 meters per second for a relatively soft landing.
That's an impressive design, and yes, in ideal conditions it appears to work. If you head over toThe Atlantic post and watch the embedded video, it seems so effortless as to be dumb. But can it work in the real world?
Madrigal reports that the project's main engineers believe that it's eminently possible that Google could create an UAV delivery service. This is all research for now, and there are difficulties to overcome, but drone delivery could be the real thing.
They have not built a reliable system Google users can order from yet, but they believe the challenges are surmountable. Now, Google will begin growing the program in an ultimate push to create a service that will deliver things people want quickly via small, fast "self-flying vehicles," as they like to call them.
We all laughed when Amazon showed its teaser for Prime Air because it seemed too far-fetched and too rudimentary to be serious. What's more, the FAA has categorically said it will never allow drone delivery. Still, in reading the details in Madrigal's story—we can't recommend it enough—a future in which our skies are choked with UAVs porting packages might be closer than we think. [The Atlantic]