Inside Google's Secret Drone-Delivery Program

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.

“The original observation felt most like this,” Teller said. “When the Pony Express came along, it really reshaped society to be able to move things around fairly reliably at that speed, which was measured in many days. The U.S. Postal Service—growing partly out of the Pony Express and having it be even more reliable and starting to shorten the time—really did change society again.

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“FedEx overnight delivery has absolutely changed the world again. We’re starting to see same-day service actually change the world,” he continued. “Why would we think that the next 10x—being able to get something in just a minute or two—wouldn’t change the world?”

If there is one thing Google likes, it is changing the world. The company’s framework for societal transformation has been conditioned by the relentless decrease in cost and increase in performance of computers. They believe order-of-magnitude changes can happen quickly because they’ve seen and participated in both the rise of the commercial web and the astonishing growth of mobile computing.

To these technical changes, they attach the concept of progress, especially if Google, with its deeply held sense that it won’t or can’t be evil, is involved. As the company has matured, people like Teller seem willing to admit that perhaps all things aren’t getting better all the time. But they argue the new “goods” outweigh the new “bads,” especially if an honest accounting is made of the current alternatives.

“Google X has this experience all of the time in all of these different projects,” Teller said. People count all the problems created by our current way of life as zero because that's what we’re used to as the societal default, he contended. Conversely, people immediately see the negatives of any new thing. “We are not deaf to those issues and we’re really eager to talk to society about how to mitigate those,” Teller said. “But part of our conversation with society is about us listening, but also trying to remind the people that we talk to that the place we’re starting from is not zero. In this case, for delivery, cars, airplanes create a very large carbon footprint and have a lot of safety issues.”

So, of course Google wants to help increase the speed of delivery and reduce the carbon footprint and safety of delivery. Ergo, the development of self-flying vehicles. “In principle that [speed improvement] could happen independent of self-flying vehicles,” Teller concluded. “But it was obvious from the very beginning that it was going to have to be self-flying vehicles.”

Google X began to come up with ideas and test them theoretically and experimentally. They considered many different wild options, sketching out new and wacky transportation systems. (“What if you took a glider up on a balloon with a super long string and the glider goes up, releases, and zooms down… You can—on paper—satisfy yourself that’s not the right solution.”) But eventually, Teller realized they needed an expert. They did a search and ended up pulling Roy across the county.

Roy was perhaps a less-than-obvious choice. For one, he’d never worked on drones flying outside. The challenges of the wind were new to him. Roy neither had a traditional aeronautics background nor had he dealt in logistics. Look back on his resume from the early 2000s, as he prepared to finish his PhD at Carnegie Mellon: There are almost no signs that he’d be the guy Google X would one day tap for a drone project. His most prominent work had been on tour guide and nursing robots.

Nick Roy in Australia during the Wing delivery tests (Google).

But that leaves out one very important detail: Roy's thesis advisor was Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Google X, and one of the most influential people in robotics. In the years before his tour at Google, Roy did important work with the support of the Office of Naval Research on indoor drone navigation in "GPS-denied" environments, where the vehicles can't rely on satellites to position themselves.

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