AI News, Why Are Google and Amazon Not Using Drone Airplanes?

Why Are Google and Amazon Not Using Drone Airplanes?

Last week Google pulled back the curtain on its Project Wing, an effort to develop small drones that can deliver packages.

The notion of being able to deliver small payloads in this way has been on lots of people’s minds since December of last year when Amazon revealed its own efforts to whisk packages to its customers using small drones, a service-to-be that it calls Prime Air.

And one San Francisco company claims it will offer such a service very soon to residents in urgent need of pharmacy supplies in the city's Mission district, despite the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's position that commercial use of even the smallest drones is forbidden.

The people behind Google’s Project Wing were obviously sensitive to these issues and have sidestepped them to some extent by adopting a kind of aircraft known as a “tail sitter.” It can take off and land vertically like a helicopter, but in flight it rotates 90 degrees and flies horizontally through the air supported by its fixed wings.

After arriving at its destination, the tail-sitter drone transitions from horizontal flight to hover, lowers its payload to the ground on a slender line, releases it, and winches the line back up.

Back in 2011—eons ago in drone tech—students from the University of North Dakota managed to get a drone to airdrop a package to within 11 feet (4 meters) of its target—and that was from 1000 feet above ground in an 8-knot wind.

Inside Google's Secret Drone-Delivery Program

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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

Eyes on the skies: The dream of drone delivery starts to take flight

Driving their interest in drone package delivery is the possibility of super-fast shipping—as in next half-hour rather than next day—which in turn relates to the growth of e-commerce and consumers’ changing expectations for what constitutes timely delivery.

In a 2016 survey conducted by Walker Sands Communications, 79% of respondents said they would be “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to request drone delivery of their package if it could be delivered within an hour.

Of the 1,433 U.S. consumers surveyed, 26% expected to order their first drone-delivered package “in the next two years,” and another 30% said “in the next five years.” In addition, 73% of Walker Sands’ survey participants said they would pay up to $10 for a drone delivery.

Local customers who wished to send a package by drone between the trial program’s two stations simply inserted their package into the Skyport, and the item was loaded onto the drone.

One of Google’s delivery models combines aerial drones with rolling, earthbound robots—the aerial vehicles transfer packages to the robots on the ground (also see “Down-to-earth drones tackle the ‘last mile’”).

Getting the serum to the baby In addition to delivering items quickly, drones can serve difficult-to-access areas better than conventional delivery vehicles.

“FedEx has expressed some interest in this ‘last mile,’ where if you’re sending a truck out, it’s got to go way out of the way on curvy, windy roads to reach a destination.

It’s getting medications to people that are in remote areas—getting the serum to the dying baby.” In fact, using drones for disaster relief and the delivery of medicines and other healthcare supplies to remote or undeveloped areas is a lively area of research.

For these applications, drones offer the benefits of fast delivery and the ability to reach areas that are isolated geographically or whose roads have been damaged.

The company’s six-rotor drone makes a delivery by carefully lowering the package, on a tether, to the ground as the drone hovers above the delivery zone.

Flirtey sees a future for delivering commercial packages as well as medical and relief supplies via drones.“Our vision is to reinvent the delivery process” not only for e-commerce but also for food delivery and humanitarian projects, says Matt Sweeny, Flirtey’s CEO.

The rules of the sky These intriguing drone-delivery demonstrations have led some to envision a sky buzzing with drones, each carrying a package addressed to a different location.

“You essentially need an air traffic control system in place.” He adds, “How do we separate the drones from each other, and how do we separate the drones from general aviation aircraft?

It’s the size of a large bird, and it’s out there flying.” These issues are behind several of the rules the FAA released in June 2016 for what it calls “non-hobbyist small unmanned aircraft (UAS) operations.” The rules cover operational limitations, pilot certification and drone requirements.

The new rules are designed to keep drones operating in their own air zone (away from general aviation aircraft) and to make sure operators land their drones if hazards appear.

“So the plan is to figure out a way to operate these drones at lower altitudes and have this delivery model—going from point A to point B to deliver a package—take place.”  

How do they know that they have enough energy so they are not going to fall into San Francisco Bay?” He adds that such a scenario would result not only in a lost drone but also in an ecological hazard, with the drones’ lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries polluting the waterway.

It’s not going to end well for the eagle, it’s not going to end well for the drone and it’s really not going to end well for the little eagle family,” Ketcham says—nor for the drone operator, after word gets out.

“I think that the government is going to have to state that drones … have same protection as a regular plane that you’re not allowed to shoot down.” There’s also the possibility of people stealing cargo—grabbing a package attached to a drone’s tether—and inadvertently pulling the drone out of the sky.

Delivery drones could be designed to prevent such incidents, incorporating, for example, a quick-release feature that would automatically separate the tether from the drone if someone tugged on the tether;

Project Wing vs. Prime Air: Google's Drones Soar Above Amazon's

Google has just entered the commercial drone arms race with Project Wing, an until-now secret program to develop 'self-flying vehicles' to deliver small packages, similar to Amazon's Prime Air.

Both programs are still years away from coming to fruition, with prototype drones — or, more accurately, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — completing only the most basic of test flights.

For Project Wing, Google (actually Google X, the company's division in charge of 'moonshot' projects) eventually settled on a tail-sitting aircraft design, which combines elements of a helicopter and a fixed-wing airplane.

Nevertheless, Google may have settled on the ideal design for drone delivery: a craft that can take off and land slowly and safely, has the ability to hover so it can take its time when unloading its cargo, and can also fly like a plane so it can travel large distances quickly and efficiently.

After all, most customers won't have room for a runway for a drone to land on, and parachuting packages from above isn't really an option (Google tried it and found that wind affected precise targeting too much, according to The Atlantic, which first reported on Project Wing on Thursday).

It's very simple, although some people criticized the depiction, saying that anything with rotating blades will be tempting to kids and curious onlookers, which represents a safety risk.

The tail-sitting design allows the drone to hover over the delivery target, then drop the item, attached to a fishing line, letting gravity pull it down at 10 meters per second (m/s).

We're still years away from getting backscratchers flown right to our front doors, but the armada of flying robots transporting them may end up looking more unusual than we ever thought.

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