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Friday 19 September 2014

Google building 'postman drones'

Published 29/08/2014 | 02:16

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Google's secretive research laboratory is trying to build a fleet of drones designed to by-pass earthbound traffic to deliver packages to people more quickly.

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The ambitious programme, called Project Wing, ups the ante in Google's technological arms race with rival Amazon, which also is experimenting with self-flying vehicles to carry merchandise bought by customers of 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.

Although Google expects it to take several more years before its fleet of drones is fully operational, the company says test flights in Australia two weeks ago delivered a first aid kit, sweets, dog treats and water to two farmers after travelling just over half a mile.

Google's video of the test flight, set to the strains of the 1969 song Spirit In The Sky, can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRTNvWcx9Oo.

Besides perfecting the aerial technology, Google and Amazon still need to gain government approval to fly commercial drones in many countries, including the US.

Last month Amazon asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to expand its drone testing. The FAA currently allows hobbyists and model aircraft makers to fly drones, but commercial use is mostly banned.

Project Wing is the latest venture to emerge from Google's X' lab, which has also been working on self-driving cars as well as other far-flung innovations that chief executive Larry Page likens to "moonshots" that push the technological envelope.

The lab's other handiwork includes internet-connected eyewear called Google Glass, internet-beaming balloons called Project Loon and a high-tech contact lens that monitors glucose levels in diabetics.

Google says it is striving to improve society through the X's lab's research, but the Glass device has faced criticism from privacy watchdogs wary of the product's ability to secretly record video and take pictures. Investors have also periodically expressed frustration with the amount of money Google has been pouring into the X lab without any guarantee the products will ever pay off.

A team led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics professor Nick Roy already has been working on Project Wing for two years, according to Google. The Mountain View, California, 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 automobiles 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," Google said in a pamphlet outlining Project Wing.

Google, though, 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 and carry emergency supplies to areas damaged by earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural catastrophes, according to the pamphlet.

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