A Queensland farmer with a taste for Cherry Ripe has become the first person to receive a drone delivery as part of a top-secret Google project.
A sweet-toothed Queensland cattle farmer has received the first delivery made via Google’s experimental self-driving drones: a bar of Cherry Ripe chocolate.
Google unveiled work on the drones – what it calls “Project Wing” – on Friday, saying it plans to build a fleet that can fly supplies and online shopping to recipients within minutes.
Engineers at the top-secret Google X laboratory in California have been working on the technology since 2011, the company says.
Yet when Google co-founder Sergey Brin told the team to test the technology in the real world, strict US aviation rules meant they had to look elsewhere.
“Australia’s rolling hills, open sky and longstanding history of innovation with unmanned aerial vehicles provided the perfect opportunity,” Google said.
“Out in the countryside the temperature varies drastically by time of day, winds shift by the second, weather rolls in unexpectedly and the luxury of returning to the shop to troubleshoot isn’t an option.”
In August, the team found themselves nearly 12,000 kilometres from Google’s plush California headquarters – on 200 hectares of dry farmland near Warwick, about 130km southwest of Brisbane.
They set up camp in a field near a cattle farm owned by a friend of Phil Swinsburg, a Brisbane drone veteran recruited to oversee the tests.
On a windy Wednesday in mid-August, Neil Parfitt, who owns a farm about 1km away from the test site, watched as a white, fixed-wing drone flew into view travelling at about 25 metres per second.
It paused about 40 metres above his backyard, pointed its nose upwards, hovered on the spot via four small propellers, then lowered a white package on a string.
When the package reached the ground, the drone retracted the string and flew back to base.
Mr Parfitt picked up the package, extracted his Cherry Ripes, then radioed the team with another request: some treats for his dogs.
The team conducted 30 successful deliveries over the next week, including a first aid kit, a water bottle and a cattle vaccine.
The ambitious program escalates Google’s technological arms race with online shopping juggernaut Amazon, which is also experimenting with automated delivery drones.
“Self-flying vehicles could open up entirely new approaches to moving goods,” Google said in a pamphlet explaining Project Wing.
“There’s a lot of friction in how we do things currently – double-parked delivery trucks clog city streets, traffic jams choke the fast-growing cities of Africa and Asia.”
The drones could be used to deliver everything from online shopping to snake-bite antidotes.
They could also open up new models for sharing rather than owning goods such as power drills, Google said.
But that won’t be for several years.
The vehicles must first be taught how to navigate around each other and handle unexpected mechanical faults, Google said.
Navigation also needs to be finetuned in order to make sure routes don’t infringe on people’s privacy and that the drones can deliver their parcels to exact spots as small as a doorstep.
Google and Amazon must also gain government approval to fly commercial drones in many countries, including the US.