Google has revealed that, like Amazon, it is building and testing autonomous drones for the delivery of goods, but the initial focus of the two-year-old Project Wing is medical support and disaster relief.
In December 2013, online retailer Amazon revealed it was testing drones to deliver goods to customers.
Google said in a statement: “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 is possible today.”
Google’s drone project is being developed at Google X, the company's secret research department that produced Google Glass and is also developing Google’s self-driving car.
Project Wing was conceived as a way to deliver defibrillator kits to heart attack victims, with the long-term goal of developing drones to deliver disaster relief aid to isolated areas, reports the BBC.
Google has already conducted trials in the Australian state of Queensland, where prototypes have been used to deliver goods with a mass of 1.5kg or less to remote farms.
Australia was chosen for the trials because of the country’s relatively flexible rules about the use of drones compared with other parts of the world.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), for example, is yet to approve the use of unmanned drones for civilian purposes.
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Google’s drone combines plane and helicopter technology, enabling it hover and take off vertically as well as fly faster and further than quad-copters, with the whole body providing lift.
Unlike military drones that are remotely controlled, Google’s prototypes are given a set destination, but are then allowed to fly themselves to that location.
To deliver packages, Google’s prototype drone hovers above a target location and releases a tether to lower the delivery package and sensor, which Google calls an “egg”, reports PC&Tech Authority.
The “egg” is designed to detect whether or not the package has landed on the ground. Once the delivery is complete, the egg detaches from the package and is pulled back up into the drone.
Despite the altruistic genesis of Project Wing, Google has said it could use drones to deliver goods to consumers in a similar way to Amazon’s proposed Prime Air service.
Amazon is yet to conduct outdoor tests of its drones in the US as it waits for FAA permission.
Amazon and others are lobbying the FAA to relax the rules, and in June 2014 the FAA approved the first commercial drone flight over land for energy firm BP, according to The Guardian.
Before Google revealed Project Wing, industry pundits speculated that the company could use its self-driving cars to fulfil the goal of expanding the Google Shopping Express service.
But Google has emphasised that it is early days for Project Wing and it might be years before it comes out of testing.
The next phase of testing will focus on the safety system that enables drones to navigate round each other and handle problems such as mechanical failure.
Google said developers must also find ways of ensuring the drones only use routes that do not affect people on the ground.