Google has taken to dropping burritos from the sky over Virginia Polytechnic and State University as part of its research into the future of unmanned deliveries.
Project Wing is using drones to deliver braised pork burritos and other delights to the students, but of course it has loftier ambitions. The Google X team wants to deliver medicine to disaster victims, help firefighters on the ground and just maybe deliver your shopping.
It has to develop the technology on pre-approved sites, though, and the Virginia Tech campus is one of six places in the US that has the full backing and approval for drone testing from the US Federal Aviation Administration. It’s enclosed with the help of safety nets and that means Project Wing is severely limited in its scope, but it’s enough to get the basics right.
“The commercial use of drones for package and food delivery in U.S. airspace is rapidly becoming a reality,” said U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner. “We are pleased to work with Project Wing and other great partners to leverage Virginia Tech’s tremendous research capacity to capitalize on the tremendous business potential promised by unmanned aircraft systems technology.”
This is a private burrito party
This service isn’t open to the public and it’s an invitation-only affair right now. Students and teachers that are invited behind the velvet rope can take a seat and order their Mexican food from the hidden Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. truck. Drone delivery is an optional $5.99 extra and right now there is simply too much pomp and ceremony to the whole affair.
A Project Wing staff member takes the customer to a holding area, the drone lands about 15 feet away and the customer can then collect their food. It is becoming an attraction in its own right and the university’s social media pages are full of students and their drone-delivered burritos.
Obviously this is a world away from the unmanned deliveries that Project Wing is aiming for, but it has to start somewhere. It will share all its information with the FAA and if Project Wing can work closely with the regulators then it can help shape the policies that will soon govern its own deliveries.
This is for research and not for profit
Google X isn’t trying to turn a profit on this venture, which is just as well. The $5.99 delivery fee goes straight to the local food bank and it’s purely a real world test.
“Last year while discussing the entrepreneurial spirit at Virginia Tech, I jokingly speculated we might one day have quadcopters delivering ramen noodles around campus,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “Apparently I wasn’t off by much. This is what happens when great partners work together in a collaborative, innovative environment. We are continuously seeking new opportunities to support Virginia’s economy and prepare our students for the future.”
Google hasn’t revealed many technical details about the drone itself, but it looks a serious piece of kit with multiple rotor blades, sturdy support beams and wings. It’s far from the finished article, clearly, but then Google will continue to refine the concept and the delivery drones of the future will look very different.
The team at Google X focuses purely on ‘moonshots’, massive technical leaps that can change the world. They include energy-producing kites, hot-air balloon-powered internet for the poor and, of course, the self-driving car. Google isn’t afraid to send rough and ready prototypes out in to the world to do the legwork, as we’ve seen with the controversial pod car.
Dave Vos, Alphabet’s head of Project Wing, said: “I don’t think about the problems. I think about the solutions that we can bring to bear.”
Amazon is working on unmanned drone deliveries in the UK, Airbus has a program in Singapore and these tests will become more realistic in the months and years ahead. One thing we can be sure of is that commercial drone deliveries like this are going to happen. It’s just a matter of time.