The Future is Here: Google X’s Delivery Drones

google-x-project-wing-prototypesThere are drones for aerial reconnaissance, drones for domestic surveillance, and drones for raining hell, death and destruction down on enemy combatants. But drones for making personal deliveries? That’s a relatively new one. But it is a not-too-surprising part of an age where unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming more frequent and used for just about every commercial applications imaginable.

After working on secret for quite some time, Google’s secretive projects lab (Google X) recently unveiled its drone-based delivery system called Project Wing. On the surface, the project doesn’t look much different from Amazon’s Prime Air aut0nomous quadcopter delivery service. However, on closer inspection, Project Wing appears to be much more ambitious, and with more far-reaching goals.

Amazon-Google-780x400The original concept behind Project Wing — which has been in development for more than two years — was to deliver defibrillators to heart attack sufferers within two minutes. But after running into issues trying to integrate its tech with the US’s existing 911 and emergency services systems, the focus shifted to the much more general problem of same-day deliveries, disaster relief, and delivering to places that same- and next-day couriers might not reach.

For their first test flights, the Google team traveled to Australia to conduct deliveries of dog food to a farmer in Queensland. All 31 of Project Wing’s full-scale test flights have been conducted in Australia, which has a more permissive “remotely piloted aircraft” (i.e. domestic drones) policy than the US. There’s no word on when Project Wing might be commercialized, but it is estimated that it will be at least a couple of years.

google-drones-290814While most work in small-scale autonomous drones and remotely piloted aircraft generally revolves around quadcopters, Google X instead opted for a tail-sitter design. Basically, the Project Wing aircraft takes off and lands on its tail, but cruises horizontally like a normal plane. This method of vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) was trialed in some early aircraft designs, but thrust vectoring was ultimately deemed more practical for manned flight.

The Project Wing aircraft has four electric motors, a wingspan of around 1.5m (five feet), and weighs just under 8.6 kg (19 pounds). Fully loaded, the drones apparently weigh about 10 kg (22 pounds) and are outfitted with the usual set of radios and sensors to allow for autonomous flight. But there’s also a camera, which can be used by a remote pilot to ensure that the aircraft drops its package in a sensible location.

google-project-wing-delivery-drone-640x353As you can see from the video below, the packages are dropped from altitude, using a winch and fishing line. Early in the project, Google found that people wanted to collect packages directly from the drone, which was impractical when the engines were running. The air-drop solution is much more graceful, and also allows the drone to stay away from a large variety of low-altitude obstacles (humans, dogs, cars, telephone lines, trees…)

This is another major different with Amazon Prime Air’s drones, which carry their package on the drone’s undercarriage and land in order to make the delivery. And while their octocopters do have slightly better range – 1.6 km (1 mile), compared to Project Wing’s 800 meters (half a mile) – Google is confident its delivery system is safer. And they may be right, since its not quite clear how small children and animals will react to a landing object with spinning rotors!

Google-Wing-3For the moment, Google has no specific goal in mind, but the intent appears to be on the development for a full-scale same-day delivery service that can transport anything that meets the weight requirements. As Astro Teller, director of Google X labs, said in an interview with The Atlantic:

Throughout history there have been a series of innovations that have each taken a huge chunk out of the friction of moving things around. FedEx overnight delivery has absolutely changed the world again. We’re starting to see same-day service actually change the world. Why would we think that the next 10x — being able to get something in just a minute or two — wouldn’t change the world?

Nevertheless, both projects are still years away from realization, as both have to content with FAA regulations and all the red tape that come with it. Still, it would not be farfetched to assume that by the 2020’s, we could be living in a world where drones are a regular feature, performing everything from traffic monitoring and aerial reconnaissance to package delivery.

And be sure to check out these videos from CNET and Amazon, showing both Project Wing and Prime Air in action:




The Future of Flight: Hybrid-Electric VTOL Aircraft

nasa-greased-lightning-10-foot-drone-640x480It may look like something a dedicated hobbyist built, and sound like something cheekily named, but NASA’s new electrical vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) machine is a very serious venture. Known as the GL-10 Greased Lightning, this unmanned hybrid-electric aircraft is the agency’s proposal for a vehicle that one day replace the reigning champion of VTOL – the helicopter.


The G-10 is in part the result of the recent strides made in electric propulsion, which is made possible thanks to the growing power and energy density of batteries allows for some very efficient hybrid-electric aircraft designs. With eight prop engines mounted on the two main wings and another two mounted on the tail, the vehicle swivels them into vertical position for takeoff and landing, and then horizontal for conventional flight.

nasa-greased-lightning-prototype1While it’s not particularly hard to create an aircraft capable of VTOL, it has so far proven to be very tough to create an aircraft that can also efficiently cruise through the air after taking off vertically. The helicopter is the only common example of a VTOL aircraft that can also cruise acceptably, but at a cost. Compared to other aircraft, an everyday helicopter has a much lower-lift-drag ratio, which means it burns more fuel, has less range and can carry less weight.

However, electric propulsion allows for much more efficient designs, since vehicles no longer have to accommodate large fossil fuel-powered engines or manage the mechanical stress across the airframe. Instead, they can rely on smaller, more efficient, optimally placed electric motors, and without the mechanical complexity of big jet engines, it suddenly becomes a lot easier to have wings and propellers that can swivel between horizontal and vertical. pure-electric aircraft do exist – in the form of quadcopters – hybrid-electric designs with longer range are generally of more interest to military and commercial groups. In the case of NASA’s Greased Lightning, there are two small diesel engines in the body of the aircraft that turn electric alternators that constantly recharge the lithium batteries. This theoretically gives the GL-10 the same range and duration as a modern plane alongside its VTOL capability.

Interestingly, NASA also says that such a hybrid-electric design is “scale free” — meaning the same principles could be used to revolutionize everything from helicopters, to military UAVs, to massive jetliners. Much like hybrid-electric cars, the concept is set to revolutionize an entire fleet of aircraft designs that could be far more efficient than they currently are. One party who is sure to be interested in the possibilities is the US military, with its ever growing fleet of UAVs.

For now, Greased Lightning only has a wingspan of 3 meters (10 feet), and on its first test flight  – which took place on National Aviation Day, August 19 – it was tethered. Untethered flights are planned for later in the year, an event which is sure to be a media sensation and produce some viral videos!