While there is still debate about if legislation would ever allow swarms of commercial drones to fly over our heads, Google recently unveiled some details of its own drone-based delivery project, named Project Wing (see video [2:01] below).
Only a few months earlier, web competitor Amazon showcased octocopters for its futuristic Amazon Prime Air delivery service with vertical take-off and landing for parcel delivery. Now, Google's way of implementing a drone-based delivery service would rely on a winged drone.
Under secret development for the last two years at the Google X research lab, the GPS-guided drone can follow programmed routes at altitudes varying from 50 to 100 meters, very much like the gliding drones from Parrot's sister company, senseFly Ltd.
It has a wing span of about 1.5 m for a height of 0.8 m, with four pivoting propellers that allow the drone to pitch upwards to the vertical to hover when it has reached the delivery address. Then, rather than landing, the drone opens its belly and winches the parcel down, via a sensor-laden tether that will decelerate the parcel before touch-down and release it as it reaches the ground.
This delivery method was preferred over landing as previous experiments showed that people receiving the parcel couldn't refrain from grabbing the parcel or/and the drone, at the risk of getting injured or damaging the drone.
In the first public video of the Project Wing, MIT roboticist Nick Roy, who took a two-year sabbatical to lead Project Wing admits that the company is still years from a final product, but this is the first prototype that Google wants to stand by.
This is probably not only because of logistical issues such as finding collision-free routes, the right energy optimization, and ensuing drone reliability, but also because currently no sky regulation in the world would allow flying such drones over populated areas (see Who owns the space above your garden?).
Now, Google stepping into the commercial drone game and joining the ranks of Amazon and Parrot means more weight for the lobbyists, and clearly the company hopes that once the safety and privacy issues will be dealt with, there will be room for some amendments.
In the meantime, route optimization in a sky cluttered with self-flying drones is a big topic of research. The future of optimization may be in the cloud, where computational resources abound before take-off.
For the rest of the story, see EBN sister site EDN.