Inside Google's Secret Drone-Delivery Program

In the self-driving car space, Google has also had to build these sorts of models for cars and pedestrians and bicyclists, but roads—and the logic of the roads—heavily constrain what maneuvers are likely. Furthermore, it’s easy to gather lots and lots of data about how drivers operate: All Google has to do is drive and drive and drive, loading ever more data into their models for how other vehicles move on the roads of California.

The sky is voluminous and these vehicles are small. It's a lot less crowded than the country's road networks, and flying things can move in all directions. Roy’s team found it difficult to even trigger their sense-and-avoid systems when they tried to do so intentionally by flying remote-controlled planes at them. So, the self-flying vehicles need these systems for ultimate reliability and autonomy, but they are exceptionally difficult to build—and to test.

There are other problems, too. The task of simply orienting the UAV in space can be difficult depending on GPS availability and accuracy. The cargo loading process requires lots of manual intervention. The economics of delivery might end up making no sense. The batteries need to get better. The vehicles need to get quieter. The reliability of the parts in the drones needs to go up.

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.”

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