Emerging Tech

Inside Google's Secret Drone-Delivery Program

Virginia Mayo/AP File Photo

A zipping comes across the sky.

A man named Neil Parfitt is standing in a field on a cattle ranch outside Warwick, Australia. A white vehicle appears above the trees, a tiny plane a bit bigger than a seagull. It glides towards Parfitt, pitches upwards to a vertical position, and hovers near him, a couple hundred feet in the air. From its belly, a package comes tumbling downward, connected by a thin line to the vehicle itself. Right before the delivery hits the ground, it slows, hitting the earth with a tap. The delivery slows, almost imperceptibly, just before it hits the ground, hardly kicking up any dust. A small rectangular module on the end of the line detaches the payload, and ascends back up the vehicle, locking into place beneath the nose. As the wing returns to flying posture and zips back to its launch point half a mile away, Parfitt walks over to the package, opens it up, and extracts some treats for his dogs.

The Australian test flight and 30 others like it conducted in mid-August are the culmination of the first phase of Project Wing, a secret drone program that’s been running for two years at Google X, the company’s whoa-inducing, long-range research lab.

Though a couple of rumors have escaped the Googleplex—because of courseGoogle must have a drone-delivery program—Project Wing’s official existence and substance were revealed today. I’ve spent the past week talking to Googlers who worked on the project, reviewing video of the flights, and interviewing other people convinced delivery by drone will work. 

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.

The Google delivery drone releasing a package (Google)

That Parfitt would be the man on the receiving end of the tests was mostly happenstance. Google’s partner in the country, Phil Swinsburg of Unmanned Systems Australia, convinced him to take part in the demonstration deliveries launched from a nearby farm. (Australia’s “remotely piloted aircraft” policies are more permissive than those in the United States.)

Standing with Parfitt as he received dog treats from a flying robot was Nick Roy, the MIT roboticist who took a two-year sabbatical to lead Project Wing. In all the testing, Roy had never seen one of his drones deliver a package. He was always at the takeoff point, watching debugging information scroll up the screen, and anxiously waiting to see what would happen. “Sergey [Brin] has been bugging me, asking, ‘What is it like? Is it actually a nice experience to get this?’ and I’m like, ‘Dude, I don’t know. I’m looking at the screen,’” Roy told me.

So, this time, as he prepared to end his tour of duty at Google X and return to MIT, he watches as the Wing swoops and delivers. Recalling that moment, he struggles not to sound too rapturous or lose his cool technical objectivity. “Once the package is down and the egg is back up, the vehicle gains altitude, and does this beautiful arc, and it’s off again,” he said. “That was delightful.”

Google

The parting between Roy and Google X seems amicable. When Astro Teller, director of the lab, described it to me in an interview in Mountain View, he literally patted Roy on the knee. “Nick was super ultra-clear with us from day one, despite lots of pressure from me,”—Teller pat Roy on the knee—“that he was going to leave after two years.” But the timeline was good, Teller maintained, because it gave the project shape and a direction.

In the two years, Roy’s goal was simple: figure out if the idea of drone delivery made sense to work on. Should Google pursue creating a real, reliable service? Was it possible? Could a self-flying vehicle be built and programmed so that it could take off and land anywhere, go really fast, and accurately drop a package from the air?

The answer, Roy and Teller say, is yes. 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.

Teller has found a replacement for Roy in Dave Vos, a 20-year veteran of automating flying machines, who sold his drone software company, Athena Technologies, to Rockwell in 2008. Where Roy got to play what-if and why-not, Vos must transform the Wing into a service that real people might use.

“What excited us from the beginning was that if the right thing could find anybody just in the moment that they need it, the world might be radically better place,” Teller said.

There are already dozens of Googlers working on the project, concocting everything from new forms of the vehicle to the nature of its delivery mechanism to the user experience of the app for ordering drones. There will be more recruits soon. Google will enter the public debate about the use of civilian unmanned aerial vehicles. Regulators will start hearing from the company. Many packages will be dropped from the sky on a tiny winch from a robot hovering in the air.

This may sound crazy. This may be crazy. But Google is getting serious about sending packages flying through the air on tiny drones. And this is how that happened.

* * *

Of course Google wants the world to believe in delivery by drone as part of the natural progression of technological society to deliver things faster and faster. This is how the world works, according to Google co-founder, Sergey Brin.

Imagine Brin in 2011. Perhaps he’s wearing a Google Glass prototype and a long-sleeved technical t-shirt, maybe even Vibram FiveFinger footwear. He is rich beyond all comprehension, a billionaire many times over. In his 39th year on Earth, he has decided to grow a beard, wisdom-enhancing salt-and-pepper sprinkled around his chin.

While Larry Page runs the mainline cash cow Internet advertising business, Brin (or Sergey, as everyone at Google X invokes him) is building a second, much wilder company inside the envelope of the old one. Over the next few years, he will unveil self-driving cars, Google Glass, help acquire eight robotics companies and a high-altitude, solar-powered drone maker, and do whatever else Google is doing in secret.

And one day in 2011—before any of us had seen these new ideas—he is talking with Astro Teller, whose goatee is more salt than pepper, and they make an observation about the world.

“The original observation felt most like this,” Teller said. “When the Pony Express came along, it really reshaped society to be able to move things around fairly reliably at that speed, which was measured in many days. The U.S. Postal Service—growing partly out of the Pony Express and having it be even more reliable and starting to shorten the time—really did change society again.

Library of Congress

“FedEx overnight delivery has absolutely changed the world again. We’re starting to see same-day service actually change the world,” he continued. “Why would we think that the next 10x—being able to get something in just a minute or two—wouldn’t change the world?”

If there is one thing Google likes, it is changing the world. The company’s framework for societal transformation has been conditioned by the relentless decrease in cost and increase in performance of computers. They believe order-of-magnitude changes can happen quickly because they’ve seen and participated in both the rise of the commercial web and the astonishing growth of mobile computing.

To these technical changes, they attach the concept of progress, especially if Google, with its deeply held sense that it won’t or can’t be evil, is involved. As the company has matured, people like Teller seem willing to admit that perhaps all things aren’t getting better all the time. But they argue the new “goods” outweigh the new “bads,” especially if an honest accounting is made of the current alternatives.

“Google X has this experience all of the time in all of these different projects,” Teller said. People count all the problems created by our current way of life as zero because that's what we’re used to as the societal default, he contended.Conversely, people immediately see the negatives of any new thing. “We are not deaf to those issues and we’re really eager to talk to society about how to mitigate those,” Teller said. “But part of our conversation with society is about us listening, but also trying to remind the people that we talk to that the place we’re starting from is not zero. In this case, for delivery, cars, airplanes create a very large carbon footprint and have a lot of safety issues.”

So, of course Google wants to help increase the speed of delivery and reduce the carbon footprint and safety of delivery. Ergo, the development of self-flying vehicles. “In principle that [speed improvement] could happen independent of self-flying vehicles,” Teller concluded. “But it was obvious from the very beginning that it was going to have to be self-flying vehicles.”

Google X began to come up with ideas and test them theoretically and experimentally. They considered many different wild options, sketching out new and wacky transportation systems. (“What if you took a glider up on a balloon with a super long string and the glider goes up, releases, and zooms down… You can—on paper—satisfy yourself that’s not the right solution.”) But eventually, Teller realized they needed an expert. They did a search and ended up pulling Roy across the county.

Roy was perhaps a less-than-obvious choice. For one, he’d never worked on drones flying outside. The challenges of the wind were new to him. Roy neither had a traditional aeronautics background nor had he dealt in logistics. Look back on his resume from the early 2000s, as he prepared to finish his PhD at Carnegie Mellon: There are almost no signs that he’d be the guy Google X would one day tap for a drone project. His most prominent work had been on tour guide and nursing robots.

Nick Roy in Australia during the Wing delivery tests (Google).

But that leaves out one very important detail: Roy's thesis advisor was Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Google X, and one of the most influential people in robotics. In the years before his tour at Google, Roy did important work with the support of the Office of Naval Research on indoor drone navigation in "GPS-denied" environments, where the vehicles can't rely on satellites to position themselves.

When Roy arrived in California, Project Wing’s initial focus was on delivering defibrillators to help people who have had heart attacks. The key factor in the success of using a defibrillator is how quickly it is deployed, so saving a few minutes of transit time could make for a lifesaving application. But as time went on, the Google team realized that tying into the 911 system and other practical exigencies eliminated the speed advantage they thought they could deliver.

So, now, Teller’s—and, by extension, I will assume Brin’s—big-picture vision has shifted to the ways ubiquitous, two-minute delivery can transform people’s relationship to stuff.

The idea goes like this: Because people can’t assume near-instantaneous delivery of whatever they need, they stockpile things. They might have a bunch of batteries, slowly decharging in a drawer, or a drill that they use for 10 minutes a year. Each of these things is a personal possession that sits around, embodying all this energy and industrial effort unproductively.

If this sounds familiar, it should: It is the argument—even down to the drill example—that organizations like Worldchanging made in the mid-00s for the creation of “product-service systems.” Those ideas, in turn, became key planks in the original conception of the “sharing economy,” imagined as one in which the world could make much less stuff because efficient, digital logistics would let each asset be used by more people.

“It would help move us from an ownership society to an access society. We would have more of a community feel to the things in our lives,” Teller preached. “And what if we could do that and lower the noise pollution and lower the carbon footprint, while we improve the safety of having these things come to you?”

And unicorns might win the Kentucky Derby, too! But one would need to find a unicorn first before it could enter the race.

Google had to build a vehicle and teach it to fly itself.

Read the rest of the story at The Atlantic.

Threatwatch Alert

Thousands of cyber attacks occur each day

See the latest threats

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Close [ x ] More from Nextgov
// November 21
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook