Skip to main content

Google’s first drone project has crashed and burned, but it’ll fly again later this year

Introducing Project Wing
Google X chief Astro Teller revealed on Tuesday that the company has gone back to the drawing board with its drone initiative, which at one point was seen as a potential rival to Amazon’s Prime Air project. Speaking at the annual South By Southwest bash in Austin; Teller, who’s headed Google’s ‘moonshot’ research division since 2010, said that the design of its Project Wing drone just didn’t cut it, forcing the team to rethink its entire plan.

The Mountain View company unveiled its single-wing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) last summer as it underwent tests in Australia. The primary plan was to have it operating in disaster zones, ferrying vital supplies to locations cut off by natural disasters, though the company suggested that, like Amazon’s drone, it could also be used to deliver items to shoppers.

Mid-air stability problems

Google’s grounded flying machine had a wingspan of about 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) and tipped the scales at around 8.5 kg (18.7 pounds). Described as part helicopter and part plane, the UAV featured a “tail sitter” design that allowed it to take off vertically before rotating to a horizontal position for flying to a destination.

The nose of the aircraft held a GPS unit, and a camera pointing towards the ground was housed in the tail. Four propellers enabled it to hover in one spot, allowing it to safely deliver a payload via a winch and tether.

project wing

According to Teller, the UAV had trouble maintaining its hover position in tricky weather conditions, while its payload moved around too much when the machine switched from the vertical to horizontal position.

Teller told the audience that even before the tests in Australia, half the development team were already thinking it was the wrong design. As time went on, that figure increased to around 80 percent, he said.

According to the Google X chief, those working on the machine had been considering a new design when Google co-founder Sergey Brin decided to apply a bit of pressure (Brin said a couple of years back that if your development project fails, it should fail fast) by asking the team to have the UAV working in real-world situations within five months. With no time to incorporate the refreshed design, the team went ahead with its test flights Down Under, during which time the aircraft’s shortcomings were fully revealed.

Teller said that Brin’s five-month request helped create an end date for this first phase of the drone project, encouraging them to reach a decision on the design more quickly than they otherwise might have.

New design

The team is now moving forward with a new UAV design, which, incidentally doesn’t include a single wing like its last effort. Teller gave little else away regarding the look of the latest machine but promised more details would be revealed later this year.

For Brin and Teller, scrapping its first UAV design is likely to have caused little upset. Google X is, after all, about trying out different stuff and seeing what sticks, and anyway, they’re certain to have learned plenty from this first effort. We are, however, curious to see what the research lab has come up with for its next UAV, and how the project progresses second time around.

[Source: WSJ]

Editors' Recommendations

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
Google's Project Fi is getting an Android One version of the Motorola Moto X4
moto x4 vs. moto z2 force

Android One is a Google program that offers ultra-low cost phones running pure Android, with a promise of fast version and security updates. The program has seen fewer and fewer enrolled devices over the past year or two, but there's been a bit of a revitalization this year. Xiaomi recently announced its own Android One smartphone, and now Motorola is releasing an Android One version of its latest device, the Moto X4.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is the fact the Android One Moto X4 will also be available on Google's wireless carrier service, Project Fi. The U.S. service relies on T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular's networks, but it requires a compatible phone to be able to switch between the three depending on network congestion and signal strength. Most phones work with Project Fi, but compatible phones can make use of this specific feature.

Read more
Google begins testing Voice over LTE for Project Fi customers
project fi

A post on Google's Project Fi Help Forum confirmed what some users already suspected: The company has begun testing Voice over LTE for a limited group of subscribers. The feature has been available to major carriers, such as Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, for some time now and is finally making its way to Google's network.

Users can determine whether Voice over LTE has been activated for their account by looking at the wireless signal indicator during a call. If it continues to show LTE, rather than falling back to HSPA, you're one of the lucky few. Voice over LTE sports a number of benefits, including improved call clarity, faster web browsing mid-call, and quicker call initiation. What is more, the data used during calls will not count against Project Fi users' allocation.

Read more
Google’s $20 Project Fi referral program has been extended ‘indefinitely’
project fi

Project Fi has been hailed for many reasons, the biggest of which being that, unlike with major carriers, customers will get reimbursed for any data that they didn't use but paid for at the start of the month. It's customer base, however, has not been huge.

Google in trying to change that launched a referral program giving subscribers $20 in credit for each new subscriber they refer. That program was set to last until January 11, but some users noticed that it continued functioning even after that date -- now, according to Google, the program will be active "indefinitely."

Read more