Alphabet tests Project Wing drones by delivering burritos and medicine

Technology

Google parent Alphabet has begun a new phase of testing its hybrid drones, dubbed Project Wing, by delivering burritos and medication to customers in rural Australia in a partnership with taqueria Guzman y Gomez and pharmacist Chemist Warehouse.

In a blogpost, Project Wing’s co-lead James Ryan Burgess wrote: “This fall we’ve been testing in a rural community on the border of the [Australian Capital Territory] and [New South Wales] and tackling an entirely different level of operational complexity: making deliveries directly to people’s yards.”

Created by Alphabet’s blue-sky research lab, X, the Project Wing drones are designed to incorporate the best aspects of fixed-wing aircraft – being able to travel for long distances at high speeds using comparatively little power – and classic rotary-wing drones, which can take off and land without a runway, as well as hover in place.

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Since the project’s inception, drone-based delivery has been one of the core goals. Traditional quadcopters are potentially unsuitable for serving rural areas far from towns and cities, yet those areas are the ones which can potentially benefit most from UAV-based delivery networks.

The very first testing of Project Wing was carried out in Australia, in 2014, when the company delivered a first aid kit, candy bars, and dog treats to a cattle ranch in Queensland. That test also saw the debut of one of X’s other innovations: lowering the deliveries to the ground on a line from almost 50m high, rather than landing the entire drone.

This time, the focus for X is on scale. “With each delivery, we encounter a new yard space with its own layout of trees, sheds, fences and power lines. That means that in addition to learning what people want delivered, we also have to learn how to best deliver items to people,” the company said. That means gaining a wealth of experience about where people like their deliveries left – typically in the back yard, close to the kitchen – and how they respond when it arrives.

The company also needs to learn how a variety of businesses actually pack their products for flight. “In the case of Guzman y Gomez, who is our first delivery partner for this trial, we’ll need to make sure our technology fits in smoothly into their kitchen operations, as their staff have to juggle many orders at once to ensure that every customer is served fresh, hot food in a timely fashion,” Burgess wrote.

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“Through our partnership with Chemist Warehouse, we want to ensure our system is able to support merchants with a wide variety of products. As part of this test, they’re offering nearly 100 products across categories like vitamins, dental care, sun care and over-the-counter medicines.”

Alphabet faces stiff competition in its goal to bring drone-based delivery to the world, however. Amazon, long an indirect competitor to the company in the retail space, is also loudly experimenting with similar technology, touting a test for its Prime Air service in Cambridgeshire, UK, in December 2016 as a mark of success. (The test was open to a grand total of two customers, though Amazon expressed a desire to expand that to “dozens”.)

And a number of smaller companies are also trying to break through in the same space. Startup Matternet has already begun using its technology in urban areas in Switzerland to ferry samples between hospitals, while the DelivAir app attempted to specifically deliver packages direct to the customers’ hands.

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