Google now testing drones

Sep 03, 2014

When Jeff Bezos appeared on "60 Minutes" last December to discuss Amazon’s intentions to deliver packages via flying drones, some felt it was just a publicity stunt to boost holiday sales. Last week, the technology’s potential was given more credence with Google’s revelation of its own drone delivery tests in the Australian outback.

The test project in its third year, called Project Wing, was disclosed through a press release as well as a YouTube video that featured a delivery of dog treats to an Australian farmer.

[Image: Project Wing]

Google’s "self-flying vehicles" — a hybrid plane/helicopter — take off vertically and hand off deliveries through a fishing-like line that lowers the item to customers from about 150 feet above the ground. With the first delivery made in mid-August, other items air-dropped included a first aid kit, candy bars and water.

"Over the course of the week, the team ran more than 30 successful delivery flights. We are now back in California reviewing what we’ve learned," GoogleX, its long-term projects division best known for its self-driving car project, said in a release.

Google admitted drone deliveries remain "years away" and said its next push would be to reduce noise and improve navigation for more precise delivery as well as to avoid people, power lines and other items for safety reasons. Drones have yet to be tested in populated areas.

Another major hurdle cited in news articles is that fact that commercial use of drones is not currently allowed in the U.S. The FAA is in the course of coming up with safety rules for the industry.

Public acceptance and whether drone drop-offs will ever be cost viable are also being questioned.

On the positive side, Google’s participation builds on experiments by numerous other industries. The Wall Street Journal noted that the FAA has fielded 31 requests to fly drones commercially from companies involved in agriculture, pipeline inspection, aerial surveying and movie production.

The New York Times estimated that the first commercial applications would likely be "asset monitoring" or tasks such as crop dusting and searching for breaks in railroad tracks and oil pipelines. Delivery of urgent packages in disaster zones was also noted as a likely use.

But Google — with its cash, lobbying might and tests — along with Amazon, may be able to steer the discussion toward regular parcel delivery with both regulators and the public.

"The way you convince regulators is with data that proves this is safe," Mike Toscano, president of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems Integration, a trade group, told the Journal. "Real testing also helps identify what needs to be changed and Google is already doing this."

Does Google’s test project improve the prospects for flying commercial drone deliveries? Has your overall outlook for drone delivery changed at all since Amazon first announced its tests?

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19 Comments on "Google now testing drones"

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Ken Lonyai

Bad idea overall, but as Tom said, “But Google with its cash, lobbying might and tests along with Amazon, may be able to steer the discussion toward regular parcel delivery with both regulators and the public.” That’s the key takeaway.

Sure, as a tech aficionado, drone deliveries sound really cool and from a logistics standpoint or even the environmental side, drones sound like a good idea, but digging just a little deeper, the concept is fraught with many issues too numerous to delineate here.

IMHO, hopefully FedEx and UPS will use their cash and lobbying might to ground the idea permanently.

Max Goldberg

I liked drone deliveries when Amazon announced them, and like them now. The question seems to be not if, but when.

Cathy Hotka

Yes, and personal hovercrafts and picture phones are right around the corner.

Ryan Mathews

I guess on one level it does, but that progress is mitigated by concerns about homeland security and the much anticipated FAA regulations which—at best—will probably severely limit the use of private drones, if not ban them altogether.

Current media reports of drones interfering with aircrafts, terrorizing the citizenry, etc., are also not helping the Google cause.

As to the second question, I was skeptical before and find myself even more skeptical now.

Steve Montgomery

I see little chance for commercial drone deliveries. I believe getting permission to commercially fly drones will be very tightly regulated and agree with that approach.

Think of the inherent danger of having thousands of flights over a major city each day by FedEx, UPS, Google, Amazon, Peapod, etc. Who is going to control the flight patterns, the FAA? What happens the first time someone takes over (hacks) a done and flies it somewhere they shouldn’t?

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

The prospects for the use of drones appear to be improved, but the negative news tempers those prospects. Testing and crafting of regulations will take time. Google and Amazon certainly have the capability of collecting data and pushing the lobbying process. However, safeguards against the downsides need to be created and in place before this is a viable option. This is one instance in which I see the solution being more viable in rural or remote areas. Using drones in urban areas remains doubtful to me.

Ralph Jacobson

Funny. Americans’ first impression of drones is that they are sinister. Why? Movies, terrorist threats, hyped-up news media dramatization? Sure. However, having humans, who are much more maneuverable and potentially sinister than drones, currently deliver packages within gated communities, presents a far more ubiquitous threat than any drone will anytime soon.

Is this technology far off from everyday use? Yes. Are we Americans more suspicious than other people around the globe? I believe so, actually. I blogged about this Australian test a few days ago and brought up similar thoughts. These delivery drones are simply a way for companies to get more efficient in their operations. Of course, the technology can be abused. However, if we felt this way about other technologies, we would probably have restricted use of the internet in general, like a couple countries currently do. I certainly don’t think that is the right approach.

Ed Dunn
3 years 1 month ago

Creating technology that autonomously flies in and drops a mysterious package off at a residence or commercial location, then flies away, is never going to happen for homeland security’s sake. Dream on.

I’m very interested in the ocean-traveling submarine or zeppelin airship drones that can move shipping containers a lot faster than current freighters and use less energy.

gordon arnold

Twenty years is a very long time in the land of information technology, the birth place of e-commerce and where time is the sworn enemy. Drones buzzing around densely populated urban areas delivering pianos and furniture is most likely a little bit further in our future but not impossible with some work on packaging and ease of assembly.

But in this discussion there is the need to consider the average size and weight of an Amazon shipment, as well as the need for more cost-effective shipping methods to remote locations worldwide. That is where the opportunity and money is right now, and why 20 years from now might be too late for anyone with foresight.

Danny Silverman

@Ken: Please note FedEx has been on the record as researching drones of their own. Long before Amazon’s 60 Minutes interview, FedEx was on the forefront of the lobbying efforts to regulate drones for commercial use.

The efficiencies and benefits are so significant that there is no way this technology won’t become a reality. For example, would you be willing to walk/drive to a central pick up point if it meant $1 FedEx express overnight shipping? Probably.

Will it look like octo-copters or Harrier-esque jump-drones? Maybe, maybe not. I suspect what comes to reality will look nothing like what we have seen thus far. But it will happen.

George-Marie Glover
George-Marie Glover
3 years 1 month ago

Personally, I’m waiting for transporters and replicators.

Zel Bianco
Although there appear to be many hurdles for Google’s drone project to overcome, the future outlook for their drone investment is high. According to Google themselves, drone deliveries remain “years away,” there are many technical issues to work out including vital safety issues and commercial drones are not currently allowed in the U.S. The sole fact the commercial drones are not currently being allowed in the U.S. could make the project inviable altogether. However, with safety rules currently being made as well as the FAA fielding 31 requests to fly drones commercially from companies involved in wide range of industries, including movie production and agriculture, it’s almost inevitable that this technology will be used for commercial purposes in the near future. History tells us that when a groundbreaking technology is developed which benefits us as humans; it is inevitable that no matter how unaccepted it may be at a certain point in time, it will eventually be utilized to the fullest extent. The amount of benefits this technology could bring to humanity is just incredible. Drones can be used to deliver food and water to impoverished and dangerous regions; they can improve the quick and efficient delivery of knowledge through… Read more »
Larry Negrich

I look forward to a time when Amazon, Google, Walmart, Kroger, et al., create a drone delivery model enabling toilet tissue, skinny jeans and canned hams to take to the sky. Late-comers to drone delivery may have a difficult time breaking into the market as I believe Amazon recently received a patent for “the sky.”

Lee Kent

With the technology here, I am sure we can all see much competition for air space in the coming years.

Yes, it is likely that the decisions will come down to “he who lobbies best and hardest,” not to mention has the bucks, but I do so hope that we are smart enough to relegate mere package delivery to its proper rung. Emergencies? Yes! Can’t wait a day for a package because we simply want it now? Not so much!

For my 2 cents!

John Karolefski

No chance drones for home deliveries will work in the U.S. The Australian outback is not metro New York or Chicago. In other areas of the country—where, say, there are a lot of hunters—these drones would be shot out of the sky for sport.

Sure, it sounds cool and all. But let’s add a little reality to this topic.

Craig Sundstrom

Fun though it might be to look at, what is the Google test supposed to prove? No one—I think—doubts the technical feasibility of this, it’s a cost and control issue. So Google spent what, $100 … $300 … $500 to deliver $20 worth of material to a remote location, presumably replacing a bush pilot who would have done the task for a little more (or maybe a little less)? I see little carryover of this to the problem of thousands of drones a day being threaded through the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan … or any urban area, for that matter.

Doug Garnett

Amazon’s announcement seemed like one of the “we’ve got to make a big statement” kind of announcements. And there’s enough back room buzz about problems at Amazon to make that seem possible.

Google? Good question.

I expect the reality is that high volume repeat customers with a need for fast delivery are about the only place where drone style deliver might work. There are far too many liabilities involved with random home delivery. (Do you really want your 5 year old possibly interacting with or getting injured by a a drone? Or do you want your package to sit out in the rain here in Oregon because the drone couldn’t reach your porch?)

But with repeat customers where the company can establish defined flight patterns and specific delivery pads seem like a possible application.

The unanswered question remains whether this idea is merely a toy for companies with far too much cash or whether there’s a serious business potential. I’m skeptical. But 20 years is a long time during which many things can happen.

W. Frank Dell II

Commercial flights for drones was always going to happen, the question was for delivery. New technology having an economic advantage always wins out. E-mail replaced letter writing. FedEx replaced the Post Office with overnight delivery for important documents. Drones will have their place as well. First there will be a weight limitation. Second will be a location limitation. Third will be a value limitation.

Mohamed Amer

A sky full of drones in residential areas is difficult to imagine, let alone the chaos of managing that airspace. Who will be the first to sue when a drone malfunctions or two drones collide and crash in someone’s backyard with the kids playing?

Yet, are we any closer to having drones making deliveries, yes. A likely scenario is use of these drones beyond package delivery (for Google – “organize everything”) and for Amazon, select deliveries in less congested spaces and more remote delivery locations. The real benefit accrues to these companies via their very early R&D investments; they will be better positioned to redefine the delivery model, discover new uses, and derive unanticipated benefits that transcend our current ideas on what package delivery means.

But there will be many bumps on that road. Outside Staples Center when the LA Kings won the Stanley Cup, a private drone hovered above the crowd which brought the drone down with makeshift ground-to-air missiles (T-shirts).

Drones will find a home in our future; it’s inevitable, and I don’t have to like it.


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