Inside Google's Secret Drone-Delivery Program

For two years, the company has been working to build flying robots that can deliver products across a city in a minute or two. An Atlantic exclusive.
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A zipping comes across the sky.

A man named Neil Parfitt is standing in a field on a cattle ranch outside Warwick, Australia. A white vehicle appears above the trees, a tiny plane a bit bigger than a seagull. It glides towards Parfitt, pitches upwards to a vertical position, and hovers near him, a couple hundred feet in the air. From its belly, a package comes tumbling downward, connected by a thin line to the vehicle itself. Right before the delivery hits the ground, it slows, hitting the earth with a tap. The delivery slows, almost imperceptibly, just before it hits the ground, hardly kicking up any dust. A small rectangular module on the end of the line detaches the payload, and ascends back up the vehicle, locking into place beneath the nose. As the wing returns to flying posture and zips back to its launch point half a mile away, Parfitt walks over to the package, opens it up, and extracts some treats for his dogs.

The Australian test flight and 30 others like it conducted in mid-August are the culmination of the first phase of Project Wing, a secret drone program that’s been running for two years at Google X, the company’s whoa-inducing, long-range research lab.

Though a couple of rumors have escaped the Googleplex—because of course Google must have a drone-delivery program—Project Wing’s official existence and substance were revealed today. I’ve spent the past week talking to Googlers who worked on the project, reviewing video of the flights, and interviewing other people convinced delivery by drone will work. 

Taken with the company’s other robotics investments, Google’s corporate posture has become even more ambitious. Google doesn’t just want to organize all the world’s information. Google wants to organize all the world.

During this initial phase of development, Google landed on an unusual design called a tail sitter, a hybrid of a plane and a helicopter that takes off vertically, then rotates to a horizontal position for flying around. For delivery, it hovers and winches packages down to the ground. At the end of the tether, there’s a little bundle of electronics they call the “egg,” which detects that the package has hit the ground, detaches from the delivery, and is pulled back up into the body of the vehicle.

The Google delivery drone releasing a package (Google)

That Parfitt would be the man on the receiving end of the tests was mostly happenstance. Google’s partner in the country, Phil Swinsburg of Unmanned Systems Australia, convinced him to take part in the demonstration deliveries launched from a nearby farm. (Australia’s “remotely piloted aircraft” policies are more permissive than those in the United States.)

Standing with Parfitt as he received dog treats from a flying robot was Nick Roy, the MIT roboticist who took a two-year sabbatical to lead Project Wing. In all the testing, Roy had never seen one of his drones deliver a package. He was always at the takeoff point, watching debugging information scroll up the screen, and anxiously waiting to see what would happen. “Sergey [Brin] has been bugging me, asking, ‘What is it like? Is it actually a nice experience to get this?’ and I’m like, ‘Dude, I don’t know. I’m looking at the screen,’” Roy told me.

So, this time, as he prepared to end his tour of duty at Google X and return to MIT, he watches as the Wing swoops and delivers. Recalling that moment, he struggles not to sound too rapturous or lose his cool technical objectivity. “Once the package is down and the egg is back up, the vehicle gains altitude, and does this beautiful arc, and it’s off again,” he said. “That was delightful.”

Google

The parting between Roy and Google X seems amicable. When Astro Teller, director of the lab, described it to me in an interview in Mountain View, he literally patted Roy on the knee. “Nick was super ultra-clear with us from day one, despite lots of pressure from me,”—Teller pat Roy on the knee—“that he was going to leave after two years.” But the timeline was good, Teller maintained, because it gave the project shape and a direction.

In the two years, Roy’s goal was simple: figure out if the idea of drone delivery made sense to work on. Should Google pursue creating a real, reliable service? Was it possible? Could a self-flying vehicle be built and programmed so that it could take off and land anywhere, go really fast, and accurately drop a package from the air?

The answer, Roy and Teller say, is yes. They have not built a reliable system Google users can order from yet, but they believe the challenges are surmountable. Now, Google will begin growing the program in an ultimate push to create a service that will deliver things people want quickly via small, fast “self-flying vehicles,” as they like to call them.

Teller has found a replacement for Roy in Dave Vos, a 20-year veteran of automating flying machines, who sold his drone software company, Athena Technologies, to Rockwell in 2008. Where Roy got to play what-if and why-not, Vos must transform the Wing into a service that real people might use.

“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 radically better place,” Teller said.

There are already dozens of Googlers working on the project, concocting everything from new forms of the vehicle to the nature of its delivery mechanism to the user experience of the app for ordering drones. There will be more recruits soon. Google will enter the public debate about the use of civilian unmanned aerial vehicles. Regulators will start hearing from the company. Many packages will be dropped from the sky on a tiny winch from a robot hovering in the air.

This may sound crazy. This may be crazy. But Google is getting serious about sending packages flying through the air on tiny drones. And this is how that happened.

* * *

Of course Google wants the world to believe in delivery by drone as part of the natural progression of technological society to deliver things faster and faster. This is how the world works, according to Google co-founder, Sergey Brin.

Imagine Brin in 2011. Perhaps he’s wearing a Google Glass prototype and a long-sleeved technical t-shirt, maybe even Vibram FiveFinger footwear. He is rich beyond all comprehension, a billionaire many times over. In his 39th year on Earth, he has decided to grow a beard, wisdom-enhancing salt-and-pepper sprinkled around his chin.

While Larry Page runs the mainline cash cow Internet advertising business, Brin (or Sergey, as everyone at Google X invokes him) is building a second, much wilder company inside the envelope of the old one. Over the next few years, he will unveil self-driving cars, Google Glass, help acquire eight robotics companies and a high-altitude, solar-powered drone maker, and do whatever else Google is doing in secret.

And one day in 2011—before any of us had seen these new ideas—he is talking with Astro Teller, whose goatee is more salt than pepper, and they make an observation about the world.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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