Google’s – Project Wing tests drone food delivery in Australia

Google’s sister company Project Wing is collaborating with communities and partners in south-eastern Australia to trial delivery drones.

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Project Wing drone in Australian skies

The following summary and accompanied images from a Project Wing blogpost provide an insight on what they’ve recently tested, discovered as well as their ongoing focus.

The last few years has seen Project Wing conducting thousands of flights to get their drone delivery technology ready for everyday use. More recently they’ve been testing in an Australian rural community and stepping it up to an entirely different level of operational complexity- making deliveries directly to people’s yards.

Their testers – alpaca farmers, math professors, equestrians, and artists have been helping them fine-tune how their drones move goods from where they’re located to where they’re needed.

Project Wing drone lowering burrito package

 

Guzman y Gomez – a Mexican food chain and Chemist Warehouse – a chain of pharmacies are the two Australian merchants who are keen in understanding how drone deliveries could help serve their clients better. At first, merchants receive orders from their testers who’ve purchased items using the Project Wing app. The drone pilots then dispatch their drones to pick up the order from the partners’ loading sites and transport the goods
to the testers at their residences.

Drone delivering to tester’s yard

 

Alleviating day-to- day inconvenience

Residents near the Project Wing testing area on the outskirts of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) live an idyllic country lifestyle on 10-acre blocks of rolling land. But they face a 40-minute round trip in a car for almost anything, whether it’s a carton of milk, veggies for dinner, or even a cup of coffee.

The Project Wing testers – including young families, busy professionals and retirees – had many suggestions for how drone technology could address this fundamental inconvenience. They wanted fresh meals delivered at dinner time. Some who run small businesses at home wanted to be able to send customer orders from their doorstep. A few with farms wanted supplies to arrive at their paddocks, or spare parts delivered to the ailing vehicle on their property. Almost all said that they’d value having medicine delivered to their door, especially when they’re unwell.

They also shared ideas about delivery drones being used to transport drinking water, food, medical supplies, and mechanical parts to emergency service workers operating in rural areas or places cut off due to floods and fires.

Tester with Project Wing package

 

Identifying safe and convenient delivery locations

Last year at Virginia Tech, their first deliveries with members of the public were in an open field, not to a specific address or location. Now with each delivery, Project Wing encounter a new yard space with its own layout of trees, sheds, fences, and power lines. This means that in addition to learning what people want delivered – they also have to learn how to best deliver specific items to people.

Their drones are able to deliver items almost anywhere - backyards, public parks, farmlands or even fire-breaks. However they need to train their systems to reliably identify safe and convenient delivery locations, which is more complicated than it looks. They want to incorporate customer preferences - e.g. many of their testers prefer packages delivered to backyards so they’re not visible from the road or near kitchens so food items can be unpacked quickly. Therefore they have to be ready to accommodate changing conditions at the delivery location.

While their Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) platform allows them to pre-plan a flight route, the sensors on their aircraft are responsible for identifying obstacles that might appear during a flight or delivery, like a car parked in an unexpected spot or outdoor furniture that’s been moved. The more test deliveries they do, exposing the sensors on their aircraft to new delivery locations – the smarter their aircraft’s algorithms will one
day become at picking a safer spots for deliveries.

Loading and delivering packages smoothly and quickly

To operate an effective drone delivery system, Project Wing must be able to pick up packages from anyone in almost any location. This presents an interesting design challenge – their technology must be intuitive and easy to use, so packages can be loaded and received without any specialized infrastructure and by people without specialized experience.

Their partners Guzman y Gomez and Chemist Warehouse will teach them what they need to do to ensure that orders are fed smoothly to their staff so that the goods can be comfortably loaded onto the delivery drones. In the case of Guzman y Gomez, who is their first delivery partner for this trial – Project Wing need to make sure their technology fits in efficiently within the merchant’s kitchen operations as staff deal with many orders at
once to ensure that every customer is served fresh, hot food in a timely fashion. Project Wing will also discover how much notice to give them for a drone’s arrival so that they can cook, pack and load in a seamless manner.

Guzman Y Gomez staff member packing food

Through their partnership with Chemist Warehouse, they want to ensure their 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. By practicing how they pack items of very different shapes and sizes into their fixed-sized package – they’ll learn how to optimize how many
items they’re able to deliver per flight.

The information they gather from both of these test partners will help Project Wing build a system in a way that merchants of all kinds can focus on what they’re good at – like making food or helping people feel healthier - rather than being distracted by complex delivery logistics.

The Project Wing crew are expecting the next few months to be filled with unexpected challenges as they undertake these new tests. They are grateful to the communities in the ACT and Queanbeyan regions who have let them into their yards so they can learn even more about building a delivery network ready to fly in the open skies.

Guzman Y Gomez staff member loading drone

 

The drones

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

Project Wing drones have been designed to incorporate the best aspects of fixed-wing aircraft. They can travel long distances at high speeds using comparatively little power. They are a classic rotary-wing drone which can take off and land without a runway as well as hover in one spot too.

As part of Project Wing’s upcoming tests – they will help the ACT Rural Fire Service assess how their technology could aid their efforts.

Up close – Project Wing drone in Australian skies

Acknowledgements

A personal thank you to Google’s – Project Wing team for sharing their insights on these exciting new developments.

 

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