While a handful of the world's top technology companies are engaged in an "arms race" to develop drones that can quickly deliver goods to anyone anywhere, Google is in the spotlight this week with news that it has successfully tested its "Project Wing" program in Australia. The story emerged Thursday with an exclusive feature published in The Atlantic.
The article by Alexis C. Madrigal revealed how Google successfully completed some 30 test flights and deliveries using its unmanned aviation system in mid-August. The system has been in development at Google X, the search-engine company's "semi-secret" research facility located near its Mountain View, California, headquarters.
In one test flight, Madrigal describes how "a tiny plane a bit bigger than a seagull" hovers over a man standing outside on an Australian cattle ranch, then lowers a package to the ground via a thin line before detaching the line and flying away. The man then picks up and opens the package, which contains dog treats.
"Though a couple of rumors have escaped the Googleplex -- because of course Google must have a drone-delivery program -- Project Wing's official existence and substance were revealed today," Madrigal writes. "I've spent the past week talking to Googlers who worked on the project, reviewing video of the flights, and interviewing other people convinced delivery by drone will work."
'Much More in Common with Self-Driving Car'
"We don't have a lot more details to share at this point," said Google spokesman Raymond Gobberg in an e-mailed statement. "The vehicle you see in our video is more a research vehicle than an indication of a final decision or direction -- as we figure out exactly what our service will deliver and where and why, we will look at a variety of vehicle options (both home-made and off-the-shelf)."
Gobberg added, "It's going to be a few years before we have a system ready -- this has much more in common with the self-driving car than with the remote-controlled planes you might see in the park on the weekend."
Commenting on the increasing competition in the drone space, Gobberg noted: "We think there's a lot of potential for this technology to help people in their daily lives. A rising tide lifts all boats; this is not a problem that one company, organization or government is going to solve. It's an incredibly difficult problem, and the more responsible participants in the space the better."
In addition to the self-driving car and the delivery drone, Google X is working on a number of other projects, including the Google Glass wearable computing eyewear, an airborne wind turbine, Google contact lenses and a high-flying, balloon-based Internet service network .
'Very Preliminary Stages'
Google is far from the only company exploring the use of small, unmanned aircraft on a large scale. Earlier this summer, Amazon posted a video on its Web site showing an experimental flight of its "Prime Air" service, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos garnered wide attention with a "60 Minutes" appearance in late 2013 in which he described his drone delivery vision. Numerous other organizations -- commercial and non-commercial -- are also exploring the use of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) for a variety of purposes.
The Atlantic article said Google's tests took place in Australia because of that country's less-restrictive regulations regarding UAVs. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is considering new regulations for the fast-developing drone industry.
We reached out to FAA spokesman Les Dorr Jr. to learn more about what the agency is looking at in terms of regulating drone technology.
"We're aware of the (Google) project, obviously," Dorr said. "But this is still in its very preliminary stages."
Dorr said the FAA expects to publish new regulations for the use of UAVs under 55 pounds by later this year. In the meantime, it is allowing would-be drone users to apply for exemptions under a section of its existing aviation regulations. Such exemptions would allow non-hobbyists to fly drones under limited, low-risk conditions without the need for FAA certification , Dorr said.
"As of yesterday, we had received 31 of those petitions for exemptions," Dorr said. Among the petitioners are Amazon, along with movie production companies, agricultural businesses, oil pipeline operations and even a real-estate agent.
Dorr added that it wasn't certain how long it might take before the FAA makes a decision on any of the exemption applications.