Skip to main content

Google reveals secret drone delivery tests

Heather Kelly, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Google's Project Wing has flown more than 30 test flights with drones
  • The company is experimenting using drones to deliver goods like first aid kits
  • The project is part of its secretive Google[x] lab
  • Any potential drone delivery service is still years away for the company

(CNN) -- Amazon is trying it. UPS has considered it. Ice fishermen in Minnesota used it to get beer. Yelp created one just for burritos.

Google is the latest company to branch out into delivery by drone, it revealed Thursday. The technology giant started running its first test flights earlier this month as part of Project Wing, a secretive, 2-year-old program exploring drone delivery.

A team of Google engineers and experts on unmanned aerial vehicles, called UAVs, safely carried out more than 30 test flights this month, transporting an assortment of goods including chocolate bars, a water bottle, radios, a first aid kit, dog treats and a cattle vaccine one kilometer. It conducted the tests on a farm in Queensland, Australia, to avoid the FAA's strict guidelines that limit the use of UAVs in the United States.

Google developed its own prototype hybrid drone with fixed wings and four rotors for the tests. It is 1.5 meters wide and can soar as high as 60 meters, far enough up to dodge houses and trees.

Drones have the potential to revolutionize how goods are transported. In typical Google fashion, the company is presenting Project Wing as a way to make the world better, rather than as a tool to boost its bottom line; an early goal of the program was to deliver defibrillators to heart attack victims.

Google\'s Project Wing prototype testing delivery by drone on a farm in Australia.
Google's Project Wing prototype testing delivery by drone on a farm in Australia.

Now Google imagines using the vehicles to deliver medicine and help the environment. UAVs can rise above traffic congestion, make a beeline for remote locations where roads are shoddy or nonexistent, and potentially cut down on pollution by replacing cars or trucks. In emergencies where regular routes are blocked, a drone could quickly ferry water and medicine to people in need.

The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal got an inside look at the previously undisclosed program, which was headed by MIT roboticist Nick Roy and Google[x] lab director Astro Teller.

"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," Teller told Madrigal.

Actual drone delivery, at least by Google, is still years off. The project's next goal is to determine if delivery by UAV is even viable. Then it will focus on safety features to handle potential problems like midair collisions and crashes. It also wants to reduce the noise made by its drones and fine tune navigation features to address issues like privacy.

Project Wing is part of Google[x], the company's lab dedicated to making big technical leaps, like Google Glass and self-driving cars. The department is led by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

This is not the first time Google has taken to the skies. It purchased a drone company, Titan Aerospace, for a reported $60 million in April. It is also working on Project Loon, which is testing the use of high-altitude balloons to bring Internet connections to remote areas. It also works with Makani, a company developing airborne wind turbines that hover between 80 and 350 meters in the air.

The undersea drones revealing the ocean's secrets

Hollywood to feds: Let us use drones

Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0959 GMT (1759 HKT)
This ocean drone can survive typhoons and collect data from the center of the storm.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1636 GMT (0036 HKT)
Forget selfies. Those are so 2013.
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 0009 GMT (0809 HKT)
Beyond military surveillance and warfare, drones have proven themselves useful in a number of ways.
June 4, 2014 -- Updated 2109 GMT (0509 HKT)
It's almost entirely illegal to use drones for money-making purposes in the United States. But a little Hollywood magic could change that.
May 22, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
A bird's eye camera sweeps over the green fields of Ireland, flies over the towering Cliffs of Moher and pans the ocean hundreds of feet below.
January 24, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
Marque Cornblatt's interest in drones began with a bit of playful drone-on-drone violence.
December 2, 2013 -- Updated 2257 GMT (0657 HKT)
drones amazon
Imaginations everywhere have been stoked since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced his company plans to start offering 30-minute deliveries via drone-like "octocopters."
February 3, 2014 -- Updated 1503 GMT (2303 HKT)
Ice fishers in Minnesota are reeling from a recent FAA decision prohibiting beer delivery by drone.
May 14, 2014 -- Updated 0056 GMT (0856 HKT)
Drones are everywhere. They are our present and our future, especially concerning warfare, Peter Bergen writes.
March 28, 2014 -- Updated 1325 GMT (2125 HKT)
Two thirds of the world population does not have Internet access. Before Facebook can sign up the rest of world it needs to get them online.
November 18, 2013 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Apart from what they do for the military; drones have already proven themselves capable sheep herders, delivery boys, tour guides, filmmakers, archaeologists, and -- possibly -- spies.
December 6, 2013 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
The evolution of drones continues.
November 20, 2013 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
Flying robot Skycall guides a student around MIT.
It's your first day at university and you've got 15 minutes to get to room 9-209. Easy, right?
July 19, 2013 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Deer Trail, a small Colorado town, is considering a measure that would allow its residents to hunt for federal drones and shoot them down.
November 12, 2013 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
The Federal Aviation Administration's "Road Map" to integrate drones into civilian airspace by 2015 has provoked strong reactions from privacy advocates.
November 6, 2013 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
"Live every week like it's Shark Week." Those immortal words come not from the Discovery Channel's marketing department but from Tracy Morgan on "30 Rock."
August 6, 2013 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Click through our gallery to learn more about the varied appearances of drones.
May 23, 2013 -- Updated 0116 GMT (0916 HKT)
Catch up on everything you need to know about drones.
July 12, 2012 -- Updated 1220 GMT (2020 HKT)
Drone sixton-a
Drones are currently a growth industry in the aviation sector, with scores of new companies competing for a slice of the market.
February 8, 2013 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Here are some key facts about the U.S. drone program, including how and when they are used, and where.
February 15, 2013 -- Updated 1612 GMT (0012 HKT)
The use of drones to carry out military strikes is controversial, to say the least.
ADVERTISEMENT