Much of the world is inaccessible by road, and not just the spots you might think—rainforests, deserts, the Arctic tundra. No roads connect Alaskan capital Juneau to the rest of the North American continent. And you can only reach Iquitos, a city of nearly half a million on the Amazon River in Peru, by boat or plane.
To be physically cut off from neighboring cities and infrastructure is to be cut off from resources in emergencies. How do you get specialized medicine, food or other supplies to someone who needs it without chartering a plane or hiring a boat?
In August, Google X, the search giant’s far-reaching research lab that’s responsible for the development of projects like Google Glass and the self-driving car, unveiled its solution. Project Wing is a drone-based delivery system that aims to dispatch what people need—or want—to them faster than any other modern delivery service could dream of.
Initially, the Project Wing team wanted to see if they could airlift defibrillators in medical emergencies, but they quickly realized they needed to think more broadly. Delivery isn't just about emergency supplies; it is also about satisfying unforseen everyday needs ("I need toothpaste!") and snack attacks ("I could really go for a Hershey bar right now") no matter where you are.
“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 a radically better place,” Astro Teller, director of Google X, told The Atlantic.
When the team conducted its first in-the-wild test on a ranch near Warwick, Australia (a town about 80 miles southwest of Brisbane), the Project Wing craft successfully delivered a variety of payloads, including candy bars and farm animal medicine, across some 30 flights.
The tests were two years in the making. Nick Roy, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology roboticist with a background in drone navigation systems, led the efforts to build a stable, autonomous and reliable delivery drone.
The Project Wing craft went through many variations before the team settled on its current form, a helicopter and flying wing hybrid that’s quite unique to aerospace. The so-called “tail sitter” uses its rotors to take off, land and hover vertically. It rotates 90 degrees to fly with the wing horizontal, a boon for speed and aerodynamics. Its wingspan is about five feet, and it flies at an altitude of 130 to 200 feet.
At delivery, the craft doesn’t land, but rather lowers its payload down. A winch on the fuselage of the drone lowers packages on a sort of high-strength fishing line. A bundle of electronics, called the “egg,” goes with the package. The “egg” is responsible for knowing when a package has reached the ground, releasing it and signaling the winch to retract the line. Packages descend at about 22 miles per hour, but then slow to 4.4 miles per hour to make for a soft landing.
Although the system fundamentally works right now, Google is stressing that the current Project Wing craft is only a platform for testing and might not reflect the final product. They’re also considering varying models for different types of payloads and different locations. The team still has years of work ahead to perfect the system’s autonomous flying modes and logic.
In fact, the Mountain View company is approaching Project Wing with the same caution that it is for its self-driving car project, another Google X brainchild. The team must use its craft to learn about potential flying scenarios and hazards and to train the system for future flights.
Such learning, of course, requires constant human intervention. A drone itself can easily navigate from Point A to Point B using GPS and pre-determined waypoints, but what happens if something goes awry? Skies are far more unpredictable than roadways, after all. Project Wing craft must deal with birds, weather events and trees—not to mention other drones.
So if a craft encounters an obstruction, it will ping back to the command station for guidance and use the incident as a learning event. “If a self-flying vehicle is trying to lower something and it goes down three feet and gets stuck, should it go home? Should it land?...That would be a good moment for it to raise its hand and say back to someone looking at the delivery control software, ‘What should I do?’” Teller explained in his interview with The Atlantic.
Google will also need to contend with regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration and others before any delivery system will be able to take flight. (Australia has laxer drone laws, which allowed the Wing team to test freely there.) Thankfully, the company’s self-driving car initiative means it’s no stranger to lobbying.
That prowess might afford Project Wing a leg-up compared to other proposed drone-delivery networks, such as Amazon’s Prime Air. What’s more, Google’s crafts have a longer theoretical range and higher potential speed compared to Amazon’s octo-copters thanks to their hybrid-wing design.
Mike Toscano, CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, explained the difference to Mashable: "Amazon's model was a 10-mile radius—five pounds within 30 minutes… Now you've got Google saying, 'I'm going to places like the Outback, where you've got 100 miles to deliver something'… This is the way to get those long distances."
Both companies, however, face a similar slew of obstacles, many of which critics are very quick to point out. One opinion pins Project Wing’s goal as practically impossible, citing the complex landscape of urban—and real—jungles and the unpredictability of the skies.
Fortunately, the Wing team is keenly aware of the enormity of the task ahead and realizes it will take years to train and perfect the system to make it as safe and reliable as FedEx—minus the trucks clogging up the streets.