Inside Google's Secret Drone-Delivery Program

Google also has to convince the public that they want drones instead of UPS trucks. This isn’t just about safety, but also the very real concerns that drone delivery might generate new kinds of airborne pollution, electronic locusts jittering across the sky. Or that it might destroy delivery truck driver jobs, which are some of the last good blue-collar gigs around.

And even more fundamentally: What the hell is anyone really going to use drone delivery of anything in two minutes service for? It’s a nice vision to consider the sharing economy delivered via robotic air, but what specific applications for these robots will actually make sense?

Recall that the initial application for drone delivery was sending defibrillators winging across cities. Well, many cities have solved this problem in a different way. They keep the machines geographically scattered across a city. That may be inelegant. That may be slightly wasteful. But it’s simple, it’s easy, and it does not require the invention and intervention of a flying robot.

* * *

Google, however, is not alone in thinking that delivery by drone is a plausible part of the future. Sure, there is Amazon, which announced a drone delivery development program last December. But there is also Andreas Raptopoulos and his company Matternet.

Forged out of some sessions at Singularity University, the off-the-wall futurology school in Silicon Valley, Matternet has been working to build a business around delivering medicines and other high-value goods in places without roads. They’ve tested in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Bhutan.

Since the Amazon announcement, interest in what they’re doing has exploded, and Raptopoulos expects a similar increase in attention with Google’s validation of their work. “We refer to our adoption curve as before- and after-Amazon. Things have really shifted in people’s minds. People have started thinking at the corporate and organization level. There is an opportunity to solve a big problem,” Raptopoulos told me. “And I think Google’s announcement with accelerate that even further.”

But Raptopoulous’ vision for the future of drone delivery is very different from Google’s. He imagines not an anywhere-to-anywhere free for all, but that drones will carry goods to landing depots run by local people who build their own small businesses around the UAV service. He doesn’t see this type of service cutting into the logistics business in rich countries, at least not for a long while.

There are other cargo drone believers, even outside Silicon Valley. In Europe, there is an entire organization—the Platform Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (PUCA)—devoted to bringing people together around the idea. Their vision of the future would see large cargo planes carrying between 2 and 20 tons of cargo flying relatively slowly and cheaply from places underserved by the existing infrastructure. One controller on the ground could handle 10 to 30 cargo planes flying at less than 300 miles per hour to save fuel. They could travel at all times of night and day, creating a more flexible in-filling logistics service to the current cargo system. In this scenario, cargo drones are like flying buses, not the speedy vanguard of two-minute delivery.

Founded by Dutch business school professor, Hans Heerkens, PUCA hosted a conference earlier this year that saw presentations from Airbus Defense & Space, the Dutch Air Force, and—most intriguingly—the journalist and novelist, Jonathan Ledgard, who is heading up a project with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology around cargo drones for Africa.

Ledgard, who wrote one of the best novels published this decade in Submergence, shared a draft of their vision with me—and it is fascinating in its mix of high and low technology, pessimism and optimism. He calls the robots in his plan “donkeys.”

“The qualities of a donkey are similar to what is required for a cargo drone: surefooted, dependable, intelligent, able to deal with dust and heat, cheap, uncomplaining,” Ledgard wrote. “The choice of the name ‘donkey’ for cargo drones is deliberate. A donkey is not a Pegasus, associated with speed. It does not bomb, does not monitor. It flies stuff between here and there, that is all.”

He imagines that specific cargo routes will develop in Africa at around Eiffel Tower height in what he calls “the lower sky.” Unlike Google, he does not imagine that they will fly all around; it will not be Uber for stuff one can buy at CVS. “The routes will be geofenced: donkeys will only be able to fly in an air corridor about 200 metres wide and 150 metres high,” Ledgard wrote. “Busier routes will resemble a high-speed ski gondola, without cables or supporting structures.”

At the stops on the route, “every small town will have its own clean energy donkey station” that will “mix 3D printing and other advanced technology with low tech, presaging a Tatooine future where neural circuitry and simple materials will be matter-of-factly combined.”

Ledgard believes “there isn’t going to be enough cash for Africa to build out its roads.” Yet, in previous generations, good roads were an enabling condition for industrialization and realizing jumps in the standard-of-living. How might African nations and citizens experience greater prosperity? The only way, Ledgard has concluded, is through the air.

A decade traveling the continent for The Economist, reporting on everything from jihadis to the spread of cheap Nokia cell phones has convinced him that a technological paradox will permeate poor countries in the 21st century.

“A community will have access to a flying robot even though it will not have access to clean water, or security, or be able to keep its girls in school.”

This may sound absurd, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be the future we live.

* * *

Google has a specific vision for the future of self-flying vehicles, but its mere public entry into the field will catalyze all the efforts enumerated here from Matternet’s similar project to Ledgard’s radically different donkey vision. Google simply showing interest in flying drones legitimizes all these efforts by people who are trying to marshal much greater resources than they currently have to make their initiatives work.

Beyond the reputation boost, the unmanned cargo plane booster, Heerkens, hopes that Google will develop its program in a way that allows other companies to tap into its infrastructure. “The significance of what Google does, to me, is less in the vehicles they use here and now,” Heerkens said, “but the possibility in being a big organization of implementing the support infrastructure that’s needed.” For example, the detect-and-avoid systems will need to be certified, he believes, and Google could help governments figure out how to do so.

Matternet’s Raptopoulos wondered, too, whether they might not launch a service, but provide the cloud infrastructure for others to operate their own vehicles. “Google understands data infrastructure and mapping at the different levels better than almost anybody else. They may be thinking about an infrastructure play more than a service play,” said Raptopoulos, who had spoken with Teller about the project. “But this is all speculation.”

One area where Google will almost certainly have a major impact is in shaping the regulations that ultimately govern unmanned aircraft. “To a far greater degree than Amazon, Google has a history of working with policymakers and stakeholders on technology reform,” the University of Washington’s Ryan Calo, an expert on drone regulation, said. “Think net neutrality, fair use, privacy, and recently transportation. Adding Google’s voice could have a significant effect on regulatory policy toward drones.”

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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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