Google wants you to know that it too is experimenting with drones to ferry products to your doorstep.
On Thursday, the technology giant revealed that it – like Amazon.com – hopes to use small unmanned aircraft as a quicker and cheaper alternative to having drivers deliver your online orders. The project, which has been underway for two years, has already succeeded as a proof of concept, but there remains much work ahead before it is ready for a commercial premiere.
Google showed off the experiment in a video in which it showed a drone making a delivery to a ranch in Australia. In the test, the drone hovered a couple hundred feet overhead and used fishing line to lower a box containing dog biscuits to people waiting below.
Using location technology, the drone can determine where to fly to make the delivery and sense when someone has retrieved the contents of any package lowered. It then knows to reel the delivery box back up and take off.
The drone remains high overhead to avoid any possibility that someone may be injured by its fast-spinning propellers. It was unclear whether the system would work smoothly in high winds or rainy weather.
“It’s years from a product, but it is sort of the first prototype that we want to stand behind,” said Nicholas Roy, founder of Project Wing, as the drone delivery program is called.
It is just the latest futuristic initiative to come out of Google X, the company’s research and development arm that includes driverless cars and Internet-connected glasses. The company is banking on future innovation making the experiments commercially viable, although executives are generally cagey about their ultimate plans for them.
News of the drone project was first reported by The Atlantic Online and the BBC.
The BBC said that the drone operated with four electric propellers and had a wingspan of around five feet. The maximum payload is 22 pounds, meaning that big items would not be able to get airborne.
Last year, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, made the stunning announcement that his company was hoped to one day make deliveries by drone. A number of skeptics dismissed the idea as fantasy, but it did at least score Amazon a marketing coup by casting the company as a hotbed of innovation.
Use of drones, let alone the idea of hundreds buzzing from home to home in U.S. cities, faces huge regulatory hurdles. The Federal Aviation Administration has authorized a handful of test sites for commercial drones but has prohibited their use elsewhere. Amazon, for example, is suspected of eyeing India for testing its drones after meeting resistance domestically.
Google did not address any of those concerns. Nor did it mention any testing it may be doing in the United States.
“Throughout history, there’ve been a series of innovations that have each taken a huge chunk out of the friction of moving things around,”Astro Teller, who leads Google X. “Project Wing aspires to take another big chunk out of the remaining friction out of moving things around in the world.”
David Vos, a lead with Project Wing, said that Google’s next step is to take the momentum it has built internally for drone delivery and “drive toward the dream of delivering stuff more quickly.” But in a nod to inevitable public concerns, he added that it will be done “with proper and due safety.”