Game of drones delivers the goods

09 Sep, 2014 02:00 AM
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Despite the inherent appeal of the idea, the technology isn’t there yet

A STRANGE-looking aircraft hovers over a property near Warwick, Queensland, and drops a small container carrying a handful of dog pellets and some Cherry Ripes down to the farm’s waiting owner.

For razzle-dazzle, or lack of it, the event was up there with Alexander Graham Bell’s sentence, "Mr Watson - come here - I want to see you” - the first words spoken through a telephone in 1876.

But technology giant Google is hoping that last month's air drop announced something as momentous as the arrival of the telephone. It was a Google-designed drone doing the dropping, and the event was staged with the expectation that it could herald the future of small parcel delivery services.

The drone was conceived in the Californian labs of Google X, the tech company’s skunkworks division, charged with working out on the radical fringes of innovation.

Google’s Project Wing aims to make a reality out of a concept: the sensible notion that small items can be delivered much more efficiently over short distances using unmanned aircraft than they can by a delivery vehicle that must contend with roads and traffic - plus the inherent inefficiency of running a multi-tonne vehicle to carry a book or bottle of pills.

Despite the inherent appeal of the idea, the technology isn’t there yet. Drones don’t have the right combination of attributes to carry payloads, deliver them intact over a respectable distance, and avoid pranging into unexpected obstacles, including other drones.

Project Wing goes some way towards overcoming these hurdles. Notably, the drone is like no other. It revives the “tail-sitter” concept popular post-World War II, when aeronautical engineers were trying to combine the attributes of helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft into a single machine.

Google’s “flying wing” drone is powered by four propellers and a lot of computing power. In takeoff, landing and during hover, the wing flips into the vertical, so the propellers work like helicopter rotors. When Project Wing needs to cover ground, the wing and its propellers move to a conventional horizontal position.

The other prominent innovation demonstrated during Project Wing’s first public airing was the delivery system.

While hovering about 80 metres off the ground, the Wing ejected its payload in a capsule attached to a long cable. Sensors detected when the capsule was about to hit the ground, and used the cable to slow its fall in the last few metres. When the payload was retrieved from the capsule, the Wing wound up the cable and departed.

That is Google X’s first take on a perennial problem for the drone delivery concept: how to get the payload to its target without the energy-intensive business of landing and takeoff, drifting parachutes, breakage and all the catalogue of mishaps possible when dropping things from the sky.

The other interesting thing about Project Wing is: why Australia? Why would an American tech giant go all the way to a Queensland farm to road-test its latest thing?

Because Australia has much better rules governing the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), explained the test pilot, Phil Swinsburg of Unmanned Systems Australia.

Mr Swinsburg made about 30 flights with Project Wing during Google X’s visit in August. The farm was selected for the pragmatic reason that Mr Swinsburg, part of the Project Wing team, knew the farm’s owner, Neil Parfitt. Mr Parfitt was the lucky recipient of the dog nuts and Cherry Ripes.

Asked whether the tail-sitter UAV was easy to fly, Mr Swinsburg responded, “It’s not that difficult - the computer flies it”.

Project Wing has been running for two years under the guidance of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) aeronautics and artificial intelligence engineer Nick Roy.

Having taken the project to its current proof-of-concept stage, Dr Roy is now handing the reins to Dave Vos of UAV navigation specialist company Athena Technologies.

Mr Swinburg said that under Dr Vos, Project Wing would progressively work on the obstacles to commercialisation, like reliable sense-and-avoid technology.

At the current rate of development progress, and with huge advances being made on drone technology each year, Project Wing could be in commercial service as a delivery system “within a few years”, in Mr Swinburg’s estimation.

Australia, with its distances, scattered population, and relative lack of things to hit, offers an ideal scenario for such a system, Mr Swinburg said.

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FarmOnline
Matthew Cawood

Matthew Cawood

is the national science and environment writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media

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