Ex-Google delivery drones head Nicholas Roy on takeoffs and hurdles

Project Wing's custom "tail-sitter" crafts hover vertically while making a drop-off.
Project Wing's custom "tail-sitter" crafts hover vertically while making a drop-off.

Google announced Project Wing, a prototype drone delivery system, on Thursday, joining Amazon and Facebook in an out-and-out race to conquer the skies. 

A team led by roboticist Nicholas Roy, who Google recruited from MIT, had spent two years hatching the project at Google X. Simulations and testing culminated in a series of tests in Queensland, Australia, this month.

“The real demonstration to ourselves has been this Australian test,” said Roy, who has just left the project, in an interview today. The Project Wing drones delivered candy bars, dog treats, cattle vaccines and other items to blinking “non-Googlers” on the ground.

Roy, who is now back at MIT to teach this fall, said two of his students took part in the project.

Google revealed Project Wing on Thursday, with an extended interview with The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal.

In many ways, small drones that can fly themselves and make targeted drop-offs are a technology in the making. The team expected and encountered several hurdles along the way.

Among them: the design of the craft itself. “You really want something that can go up and down and stop, but one that can make a delivery quickly,” Roy said.

Existing designs can do one or both of those things. Copter drones, like the DJI Phantom, can take off and land vertically, but they can’t travel very fast. Fixed-wing crafts like the Parrot’s eBees, on the other hand, can travel swiftly, but need space to be able to take off and land, Roy explained.

Project Wing’s “tail sitter” crafts, which made the maiden dropoffs in the Australian farm country, is one viable custom-built design.

With a five-foot wingspan, the birds can move quickly. But they also have spinning blades on their wing which lets them take off, hover, and land vertically, sitting on their tails, nose in the air. The team is also testing other designs.

In the next year, Project Wingers will be tackling another technical hurdle: safety. “Our little vehicle still needs to see other vehicles and other ground structures and fly around them,” Roy said.

In its latest roadmap, the Federal Aviation Administration has suggested that remotely piloted aircrafts will be the first to take off. But Roy said that having human pilots for each drone won’t scale. “There’s a massive software challenge to be teaching them to be as autonomous as possible,” Roy said.

The good news is, that’s Roy’s bailiwick. In his 11 years at MIT’s Aeronautics and Astronautics department, part of his focus has been building algorithms that can guide aircrafts in environments like big cities, where GPS is “flaky or unreliable.” Roy will continue to work with Project Wing as an advisor. 

Meanwhile, the skies are getting crowded with prototypes sent up by other tech giants. Google’s own Project Loon launched from New Zealand’s South Island last year, with the goal of delivering Internet access to remote areas from the skies. That’s why Facebook bought UK drone-maker Ascenta, and why Google bought Titan Aerospace this spring. Both companies make solar-powered long-range drones.

And then there’s Amazon. Roy, who was mid-way through Project Wing when Jeff Bezos talked Prime Air to Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes, insists he was encouraged by the public response to that announcement.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” he said. “This is a very, very, large problem and we’re happy to see other people working on it.”

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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