Google Inc’s secretive research laboratory is trying to build a fleet of drones designed to bypass earthbound traffic so packages can be delivered more quickly.
The ambitious program announced on Thursday escalates Google’s technological arms race with its rival Amazon.com Inc, which is also experimenting with self-flying vehicles to carry merchandise bought by customers at its online store.
Amazon is mounting its own challenges to Google in online video, digital advertising and mobile computing in a battle that also involves Apple Inc.
Google calls its foray into drones “Project Wing.”
Although Google expects it to take several more years before its fleet of drones is fully operational, the company says test flights in Australia delivered a first aid kit, candy bars, dog treats and water to two farmers after traveling a distance of about 1km two weeks ago. Google’s video of the test flight, set to the strains of the 1969 song Spirit In The Sky, can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRTNvWcx9Oo.
Besides perfecting their aerial technology, Google and Amazon still need to gain government approval to fly commercial drones in many countries, including the US.
Amazon last month asked the US Federal Aviation Administration for permission to expand its drone testing. The administration allows hobbyists and model aircraft makers to fly drones, but commercial use is mostly banned.
Project Wing is the latest venture to emerge from the Google X lab, which has also been working on self-driving cars as well as other innovations that company chief executive officer Larry Page likens to “moonshots.” The lab’s other inventions include the Internet-connected eyewear Google Glass, Internet-beaming balloons called “Project Loon” and a high-tech contact lens that monitors glucose levels in diabetics.
A team led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics professor Nick Roy has been working on Project Wing for two years, according to Google. The Mountain View, California-based company did not disclose how much the project has cost.
Drones clearly could help Google expand an existing service that delivers goods purchased online on the day that they were ordered. Google so far is offering the same-day delivery service by automobile in parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and New York.
“Self-flying vehicles could open up entirely new approaches to moving goods, including options that are cheaper, faster, less wasteful and more environmentally sensitive than what’s possible today,” a pamphlet released by Google outlining Project Wing said.
Google seems to see its drones as something more than another step in e-commerce delivery.
The aerial vehicles could also make it easier for people to share certain items, such as a power drill, that they may only need periodically.
They could deliver emergency supplies to areas damaged by earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural catastrophes, according to Google’s Project Wing pamphlet.