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 is Here: Black Hawk Drones and AI pilots

blackhawk_droneThe US Army’s most iconic helicopter is about to go autonomous for the first time. In their ongoing drive to reduce troops and costs, they are now letting their five-ton helicopter carry out autonomous expeditionary and resupply operations. This began last month when the defense contractor Sikorsky Aircraft, the company that produces the UH-60 Black Hawk – demonstrated the hover and flight capability in an “optionally piloted” version of their craft for the first time.

Sikorsky has been working on the project since 2007 and convinced the Army’s research department to bankroll further development last year. As Chris Van Buiten, Sikorsky’s vice president of Technology and Innovation, said of the demonstration:

Imagine a vehicle that can double the productivity of the Black Hawk in Iraq and Afghanistan by flying with, at times, a single pilot instead of two, decreasing the workload, decreasing the risk, and at times when the mission is really dull and really dangerous, go it all the way to fully unmanned.

blackhawk_drone1The Optionally Piloted Black Hawk (OPBH) operates under Sikorsky’s Manned/Unmanned Resupply Aerial Lifter (MURAL) program, which couples the company’s advanced Matrix aviation software with its man-portable Ground Control Station (GCS) technology. Matrix, introduced a year ago, gives rotary and fixed-wing vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft a high level of system intelligence to complete missions with little human oversight.

Mark Miller, Sikorsky’s vice-president of Research and Engineering, explained in a statement:

The autonomous Black Hawk helicopter provides the commander with the flexibility to determine crewed or un-crewed operations, increasing sorties while maintaining crew rest requirements. This allows the crew to focus on the more ‘sensitive’ operations, and leaves the critical resupply missions for autonomous operations without increasing fleet size or mix.

Alias-DarpaThe Optionally Piloted Black Hawk fits into the larger trend of the military finding technological ways of reducing troop numbers. While it can be controlled from a ground control station, it can also make crucial flying decisions without any human input, relying solely on its ‘Matrix’ proprietary artificial intelligence technology. Under the guidance of these systems, it can fly a fully autonomous cargo mission and can operate both ways: unmanned or piloted by a human.

And this is just one of many attempts by military contractors and defense agencies to bring remote and autonomous control to more classes of aerial vehicles. Earlier last month, DARPA announced a new program called Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS), the purpose of which is to develop a portable, drop-in autopilot to reduce the number of crew members on board, making a single pilot a “mission supervisor.”

darpa-alias-flight-crew-simulator.siMilitary aircraft have grown increasingly complex over the past few decades, and automated systems have also evolved to the point that some aircraft can’t be flown without them. However, the complex controls and interfaces require intensive training to master and can still overwhelm even experienced flight crews in emergency situations. In addition, many aircraft, especially older ones, require large crews to handle the workload.

According to DARPA, avionics upgrades can help alleviate this problem, but only at a cost of tens of millions of dollars per aircraft type, which makes such a solution slow to implement. This is where the ALIAS program comes in: instead of retrofitting planes with a bespoke automated system, DARPA wants to develop a tailorable, drop‐in, removable kit that takes up the slack and reduces the size of the crew by drawing on both existing work in automated systems and newer developments in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Alias_DARPA1DARPA says that it wants ALIAS to not only be capable of executing a complete mission from takeoff to landing, but also handle emergencies. It would do this through the use of autonomous capabilities that can be programmed for particular missions, as well as constantly monitoring the aircraft’s systems. But according to DARPA, the development of the ALIAS system will require advances in three key areas.

First, because ALIAS will require working with a wide variety of aircraft while controlling their systems, it will need to be portable and confined to the cockpit. Second, the system will need to use existing information about aircraft, procedures, and flight mechanics. And third, ALIAS will need a simple, intuitive, touch and voice interface because the ultimate goal is to turn the pilot into a mission-level supervisor while ALIAS handles the second-to-second flying.

AI'sAt the moment, DARPA is seeking participants to conduct interdisciplinary research aimed at a series of technology demonstrations from ground-based prototypes, to proof of concept, to controlling an entire flight with responses to simulated emergency situations. As Daniel Patt, DARPA program manager, put it:

Our goal is to design and develop a full-time automated assistant that could be rapidly adapted to help operate diverse aircraft through an easy-to-use operator interface. These capabilities could help transform the role of pilot from a systems operator to a mission supervisor directing intermeshed, trusted, reliable systems at a high level.

Given time and the rapid advance of robotics and autonomous systems, we are likely just a decade away from aircraft being controlled by sentient or semi-sentient systems. Alongside killer robots (assuming they are not preemptively made illegal), UAVs, and autonomous hovercraft, it is entirely possible wars will be fought entirely by machines. At which point, the very definition of war will change. And in the meantime, check out this video of the history of unmanned flight:


The Future is Here: AirMule’s Autonomous Demo Flight

airmule1Vertical Take-Off and Landing craft have been the subject of military developers for some time. In addition to being able to deploy from landing strips that are damaged or small for conventional aircraft, they are also able to navigate terrain and land where other craft cannot. Add to that the ability to hover and fly close to the ground, and you have a craft that can also provide support while avoiding IEDs and landmines.

One concept that incorporates all of these features is the AirMule, a compact, unmanned, single-engine vehicle that is being developed by Tactical Robotics in Israel. In January of 2013, the company unveiled the prototype which they claimed was created for the sake of supporting military personnel,  evacuating the wounded, and conducting remote reconnaissance missions.

airmule-1Now, less than a year later, the company conducted a demonstration with their prototype aircraft recently demonstrated its ability to fly autonomously, bringing it one step closer to carrying out a full mission demo. During the test, which took place in December, the craft autonomously performed a vertical take-off, flew to the end of a runway, then turned around on the spot and flew back to its starting point.

All the while, it maintained altitude using two laser altimeters, while maintaining positioning via a combination of GPS, an inertial navigation system, and optical reference to markers on the ground. These autonomous systems, which allow it to fly on its own, can also be countermanded in favor of remote control, in case a mission seems particularly harry and requires a human controller.

airmule-0In its current form, the AirMule possesses many advantages over other VTOL craft, such as helicopters. For starters, it weighs only 770 kg (1,700 lb) – as opposed to a Bell UH-1 empty weights of 2,365 kg (5,215 lbs) – can carry a payload of up to 640 kg (1,400 lb), has a top speed of 180 km/h (112 mph), and can reach a maximum altitude of 12,000 ft (3,658 m).

In short, it has a better mass to carrying capacity ratio than a helicopter, comparable performance, and can land and take-off within an area of 40 square meters (430.5 sq ft), which is significantly smaller than what a manned helicopter requires for a safe landing. The internal rotor blades are reportedly also much quieter than those of a helicopter, giving the matte-black AirMule some added stealth.

BD_atlasrobotPlans now call for “full mission demonstrations” next year, utilizing a second prototype that is currently under construction. And when complete, this vehicle and those like it can expected to be deployed to many areas of the world, assisting Coalition and other forces in dirty, dangerous environments where landmines, IEDs and other man-made and natural hazards are common.

Alongside machines like the Alpha Dog, LS3 or Wildcat, machines that were built by Boston Dynamics (recently acquired by Google) to offer transport and support to infantry in difficult terrain, efforts to “unman the front lines” through the use of autonomous drones or remote-controlled robots continue. Clearly, the future battlefield is a place where robots where will be offering a rather big hand!


And be sure to check this video of the AirMule demonstration, showing the vehicle take-off, hover, fly around, and then come in for a landing: