Google has announced it is creating autonomous delivery drones – drones that could also save lives after a disaster. Jack Stewart visited their secret home.

On the edge of the Google campus in Silicon Valley there’s a nondescript building. Until now, what’s inside has remained a secret. I’m about to enter with Nick Roy, one of Google’s employees. “This is a place that not many people without a Google badge get to see,” I joke. “This is a place that not many people with a Google badge get to see,” comes the reply.

Roy, as was widely reported last week, runs a program called Project Wing, and this building is known as The Hatchery. But dispel any ideas of sci-fi labs creating strange creatures; this is where Google is creating the next generation of drones. “This is where we design, build, test, and rebuild after failed tests, many of our vehicles,” Roy says, after I’ve been led through no less than three beeping security doors.

Google made global headlines with the revelation that it is building self-flying vehicles, and BBC Future got a rare look behind the scenes at ‘Project Wing’, the department that has been creating them. The idea has been in development for two years at Google X – the company’s secretive research division that is also responsible for the self-driving car, and Project Loon, which builds balloons to bring the internet to remote corners of the world.

Disaster relief

This revelation is timely. Quite apart from their role of drones on the modern battlefield, a wide range of unconventional flying vehicles are being developed by various companies, with the aim of moving people and packages around more efficiently.  Some of these operate autonomously, while others finally realise that decades-long dream for a vehicle that can travel by road and in the air. A drone that can deliver shopping could also transport aid after a disaster. And a flying car that can whisk a commuter to the office could also carry an emergency worker to an isolated accident scene.

The Hatchery is the main lab where testing and development takes place. It is part robotics lab, part assembly facility, and part UAV graveyard. Work benches around the edge of the room are covered in components, and above them shelves are lined with partially disassembled vehicles – propellers, rainbow ribbon cables, and electric motors and batteries, all in seemingly haphazard piles.

In the centre of the room, sitting on a workbench, is Google’s latest vehicle, a sleek white wing, about 1.5metres (5ft) in length. It’s capable of horizontal flight at speed, and is able to hover vertically to drop packages on a tether. The vehicle weighs only 8.5kg (18.7lb) and can carry packages weighing up to 1.5kg (3.3lb).

As BBC News and World Service reported last week, Google has conducted tests in Queensland, Australia, where drone regulation is more relaxed. It has successfully test-delivered snacks and dog treats to a rural farmer after being launched from a neighbouring property. As the Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal wrote, a cattle farmer called Neil Parfitt was visited by one of the Google drones, which hovered a few hundred feet above the ground, dropped and detached a small parcel of dog treats, and then flew back to its base.

Continuous supply

Roy, who was monitoring the trial near the test site, drove out to the farmer’s house and sat with him as a drone bearing treats arrived. “The experience was really something different, to see this white vehicle come overhead, come to this graceful stop, lower the package right in front of you, release it, and head on its way. This is a fun thing!”

But the drone’s abilities could have a far more serious context. Google foresees these autonomous vehicles being used to deliver supplies and equipment after natural disasters, floods or hurricanes. A truck, for example, might be driven as far as possible on washed out roads after a catastrophic flood. When it can’t go any further, the driver will open the back to reveal a row of gleaming white drones. The autonomous aircraft will be loaded with batteries, or medicines, or radios, or food, and given a destination to deliver them to. They will then fly themselves to where they need to go, drop their payload, and come back for more. In this way relatively few drones could create a continuous supply chain.

The same principle could also be used for deliveries of online orders in cities – which retailer Amazon has already proposed. A delivery driver could go to the centre of a neighbourhood, release the robotic swarm, and wait while the small efficient vehicles drop packages at each home, instead of the heavy, polluting truck having to visit each one. 

Google’s announcement has come as other aerial vehicles are being investigated for humanitarian service, such as hoverbikes and a flying car known as 'The Maverick', with a propeller at the front and a parachute wing at the back. The Maverick, for instance, could pick up medical staff from an area without a runway, and then fly them to a location impassable to cars. French company Vaylon, meanwhile, is also working on a similar vehicle, the Pegase.

Local needs

It remains to be seen how useful will these technologies be in crisis situations. Kim Scriven, manager of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, which supports new technologies for aid told the BBC’s Science in Action that they have potential, because aid agencies spend a great deal of money on transport.

He adds a caveat though: “I would say that it’s important that systems are robust and locally sustainable.”

Aid agencies typically use local operators and mechanics to maintain vehicles at the moment, so any advanced flying machines would likely need to fit into that same pattern.

The latest in transport tech might sound like the last thing on a ‘must have’ list after , but Google is keen to start us thinking about how drones could be useful – not just for deliveries, but disasters.

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