Google reveals secret drone delivery tests

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(CNN) — Amazon is trying it. UPS has considered it. Ice fishermen in Minnesota used it to get beer. Yelp created one just for burritos.

Google is the latest company to branch out into delivery by drone, it revealed Thursday. The technology giant started running its first test flights earlier this month as part of Project Wing, a secretive, 2-year-old program exploring drone delivery.

A team of Google engineers and experts on unmanned aerial vehicles, called UAVs, safely carried out more than 30 test flights this month, transporting an assortment of goods including chocolate bars, a water bottle, radios, a first aid kit, dog treats and a cattle vaccine 1 kilometer. It conducted the tests on a farm in Queensland, Australia, to avoid the FAA’s strict guidelines that limit the use of UAVs in the United States.

Google developed its own prototype hybrid drone with fixed wings and four rotors for the tests. It is 1.5 meters wide and can soar as high as 60 meters, far enough up to dodge houses and trees.

Drones have the potential to revolutionize how goods are transported. In typical Google fashion, the company is presenting Project Wing as a way to make the word better, rather than as a tool to boost its bottom line; an early goal of the program was to deliver defibrillators to heart attack victims.

Now Google imagines using the vehicles to deliver medicine and help the environment. UAVs can rise above traffic congestion, make a beeline for remote locations where roads are shoddy or nonexistent, and potentially cut down on pollution by replacing cars or trucks. In emergencies where regular routes are blocked, a drone could quickly ferry water and medicine to people in need.

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal got an inside look at the previously undisclosed program, which was headed by MIT roboticist Nick Roy and Google[x] lab director Astro Teller.

“What excited us from the beginning was that if the right thing could find anybody just in the moment that they need it, the world might be a radically better place,” Teller told Madrigal.

Actual drone delivery, at least by Google, is still years off. The project’s next goal is to determine if delivery by UAV is even viable. Then it will focus on safety features to handle potential problems like midair collisions and crashes. It also wants to reduce the noise made by its drones and fine tune navigation features to address issues like privacy.

Project Wing is part of Google[x], the company’s lab dedicated to making big technical leaps, like Google Glass and self-driving cars. The department is led by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

This is not the first time Google has taken to the skies. It purchased a drone company, Titan Aerospace, for a reported $60 million in April. It is also working on Project Loon, which is testing the use of high-altitude balloons to bring Internet connections to remote areas. It also works with Makani, a company developing airborne wind turbines that hover between 80 and 350 meters in the air.

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