Inside Google's Secret Drone-Delivery Program

“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.

When Roy arrived in California, Project Wing’s initial focus was on delivering defibrillators to help people who have had heart attacks. The key factor in the success of using a defibrillator is how quickly it is deployed, so saving a few minutes of transit time could make for a lifesaving application. But as time went on, the Google team realized that tying into the 911 system and other practical exigencies eliminated the speed advantage they thought they could deliver.

So, now, Teller’s—and, by extension, I will assume Brin’s—big-picture vision has shifted to the ways ubiquitous, two-minute delivery can transform people’s relationship to stuff.

The idea goes like this: Because people can’t assume near-instantaneous delivery of whatever they need, they stockpile things. They might have a bunch of batteries, slowly decharging in a drawer, or a drill that they use for 10 minutes a year. Each of these things is a personal possession that sits around, embodying all this energy and industrial effort unproductively.

If this sounds familiar, it should: It is the argument—even down to the drill example—that organizations like Worldchanging made in the mid-00s for the creation of “product-service systems.” Those ideas, in turn, became key planks in the original conception of the “sharing economy,” imagined as one in which the world could make much less stuff because efficient, digital logistics would let each asset be used by more people.

“It would help move us from an ownership society to an access society. We would have more of a community feel to the things in our lives,” Teller preached. “And what if we could do that and lower the noise pollution and lower the carbon footprint, while we improve the safety of having these things come to you?”

And unicorns might win the Kentucky Derby, too! But one would need to find a unicorn first before it could enter the race.

Google had to build a vehicle and teach it to fly itself.

* * *

The home of Project Wing (Alexis Madrigal)

Off one of the many hallways inside Google X’s simple red brick building in Mountain View, there is a door labeled "The Hatchery." Roy swipes his badge and we step inside the guts of the secret Project Wing.

This is a workshop. Scattered about, I can see fishing line on a table, three colors of tape, a tall half-stuffed trash can, drawers of fasteners, spare antennae, several glue guns, and some drills. Off to my right, through glass doors, there are four identical plane bodies lined up, wingless. At the back, a man is hand-building some electronics, copper gleaming in the overhead lights.

Carapaces of different species of unmanned aerial vehicles are piled on shelving units and anywhere else they might fit. The horseshoe-crab shaped bodies of several editions of the current drone sit down at my feet. Their electronic innards are visible through clear plastic. Above me, a Cessna model hangs from the ceiling. On shelving units, there are the familiar bug-like quadcopters, a strange craft with helicopter rotors built into its single wing, and a remote control monster truck.

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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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