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back to article Good luck with Project Wing, Google. This drone moonshot is NEVER going to happen

Google’s delivery drones in Oz have a really easy job – fly across a near desert and lower a parcel to the ground. That’s easy-peasy, matey. Try that in my Sixth Street home* in San Francisco, the one near the junction with Folsom Street, where (to make the Chocolate Drone Factory’s life easier) there is a grassed yard. …

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Unhappy

You've got it all wrong....

...as you pointed out, it will need 3d mapping.

Google: Can we fly drones.

US Gov. No, not without at least 3D mapping as a starting point.

.....

1 year later

Public...WTF are you doing taking photos of me in the bath on the 14th floor?

Google. The government told us to do it.

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Terminator

Re: You've got it all wrong....

This is pretty much what I was thinking (right down to the title).

Google isn't interested in making deliveries. They're interested in getting up-to-date, high-resolution aerial photography without requiring a fleet of spy satellites. Toss a flock of drones with download-pointing cameras over each major city, and you have maps that are constantly up to date. If they fly at a high enough altitude with zoom lenses to reduce distortion, they won't need to worry much about object avoidance either. They can just circle around the city all day like aerial Roombas.

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Boffin

Re: You've got it all wrong....

Its called LIDAR.

That's how you do 3D Mapping. No photos necessary.

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Re: You've got it all wrong....

Why is everyone forgetting that they started the 3D mapping years ago?

www.androidcentral.com/google-maps-adds-more-3d-buildings-more-cities

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Anonymous Coward

Re: You've got it all wrong....

Without a fleet of spy sats? Did you miss the SkyBox acquisition announcement?

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Anonymous Coward

Alternatively ...

as with trains, you make the *environment* drone friendly - probably in clearly defined areas.

15 years ago, I worked on a system for a client who had a fully automated (and I mean FULLY automated) warehouse. The only human effort was to unload/load the lorries, since they couldn't be fitted with loops for the robots. Once goods were loaded onto a robot, they disappeared into the warehouse, until they were ordered. Humans were physically prevented from accessing the floor space, so robots could whizz about as fast as they could.

It was a paper manufacturer in Hemel Hempstead .. John Dickson IIRC.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Alternatively ...

I also worked for a company that had a nearly fully automated warehouse 10 years ago. They ditched it for a much larger space in a union-unfriendly state where large numbers low wage workers of sometimes questionable provenance do all the work manually that was once accomplished through sophisticated automation. I'm sure that there were solid business reasons for making that change (for example, the relative cost of installing and maintaining effective automation), but have sometimes wondered if there might be other explainations.

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Terminator

Re: Alternatively ...

but have sometimes wondered if there might be other explainations

Like the risk of Warehouse Rise Of The Machines?

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FAIL

Re: Alternatively ...

So Google will pay the couple of trillion to relocate all the power and phone lines underground then?

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I would like 1 bag of skittles

And a free drone

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Re: I would like 1 bag of skittles

Yeah, most of the "problems" mentioned in the article are overstated. 3D mapping? No real need as long as the drone has an adequate sensor array onboard which should also take care of most of the obstacle issues.

The real problem is going to be physical security. Google and Amazon are going to be real bummed when less savory types start knocking their drones out of the air, not only for the device itself but also for the goodies inside!

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WTF?

Re: I would like 1 bag of skittles

Yeah, most of the "problems" mentioned in the article are overstated.

Exactly - and the article tries to make its argument rather anviliciously. Yeah, we get it, you think they're crazy - well, some of us don't really see a problem with anything much in that tenuously assembled heap of 'issues'. It's just a matter of will - drawing some lines on a map inside which drones may fly, assigning a (fairly low) height within these to be kept clear of choppers and other urban aerial bozos, mapping of anything that protrudes into that airspace (really now - even in a city with skyscrapers, those do not make up the bulk of the buildings), and equipping the drones with some ultrasonic ranging sensors and a few itty-bitty pinhole cameras (I wonder where I last saw full-globe covering cameras... oh wait).

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Re: I would like 1 bag of skittles

Good lord. It's like no Reg readers have ever read RISKS.

Detecting power lines isn't difficult? Against a contrasting background in good lighting, perhaps - but I wouldn't want to see an automated drone try to find its way around the airspace near my house under any conditions.

Like some others here, I suspect this is just Google looking for another excuse to gather information.

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Re: I would like 1 bag of skittles

"Detecting power lines isn't difficult? Against a contrasting background in good lighting, perhaps"

My goodness, how human-o-centric!

You are assuming the drones will be as dependent on vision as people are. I believe they could have a range of other sensors which would be far more effective than sight in power line detection.

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Ha. Except for predetermined keep-out areas like airports and the White House, drones will deal with obstacles the same way people would... "oops, there's a building, don't run into it." I don't have a pre-mapped view of the local mall, but I still manage to not run into anything.

As for running into seagulls, you'll find they give obnoxiously-buzzing RC kit a fairly wide berth, and it's rather a challenge to run into them.

For landing areas, for the first delivery I'm sure they'll have an operator go "hm, big back yard, it can land [click] there" or [click] "rejected: no landing zone detected" (That's no different than today, where if your subdivision is new enough it doesn't show up on Google Maps, you don't get Fed-Ex or UPS deliveries)

All that said, power lines are a horrible danger that's hard to detect and avoid. Just ask your local helicopter pilot. However, they move a lot faster and have a lot more inertia than a small drone, so perhaps some sort of electromagnetic field detector may work, if a vision system isn't up to the job.

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It's definitely not an insurmountable problem. When it comes to spotting overhead wires a human helicopter pilot, with good eyesight, is likely to have a lot of other things to be looking at instead such as instrumentation, distance, other craft and so on that spotting something thin and very close to their flight path isn't likely to be easy and human eyesight really isn't really suited for flight at even 50mph. However for a drone system a near space high resolution sensor of some form (optical, radar, etc) shouldn't have a problem spotting them and it then becomes a task of whether or not the drone is able to avoid them.

I wouldn't really consider that such drone delivery systems are useful for urban environments, but where there is a lot of unpopulated space with sparse settlements, a drone delivery system could be useful.

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@Gene Cash

"I don't have a pre-mapped view of the local mall, but I still manage to not run into anything."

In fairness, you do have some of the most sophisticated sensing, interpretation, positioning, path-finding and error-correction software imaginable, all running on hardware developed and refined in parallel over millions of years and exquisitely tuned to work together seamlessly. You also have access to a vast store of comparative information that works with unbelievably versatile pattern-matching software to identify all manner of objects in the environment, supplemented with an unequalled ability to infer the properties of objects by observation of their behaviour and vice-versa.

Further, the whole package is capable of near-spontaneous self-improvement and efficient learning routines which enable you to not only deal with new situations in suitable ways but also improve the efficiency of any subsequent approaches the similar problems.

There is nearly no engineering or software problem that can't be solved to get drones delivering packages - the issues becomes the ability to do so without spending many, many times more than the benefit gained.

As one poster said, above, the trick is to get the environment suited to the use. That is clearly not the case for this proposal so a better option would seem to be the continued development of self-driving cars. Once this is sufficiently advanced, efficient delivery vehicles could be designed.

That has many benefits, not least of which is that the investment is already there - both in the infrastructure (roads) and the technology. You also have a much broader range of packages that can be transported so your investment has broad use.

There is of course the problem of actually getting the package into the customer's hands but considering the issues presented in the article of the increasing density of populations and the types of dwellings we inhabit (i.e. apartments), this is no more problematic for a self-driving vehicle than a drone. As it will be near-impossible to take the parcel directly to the recipient, the recipient must meet the delivery part-way.

The only added concerns for a vehicle above a drone would be package selection and dispensation once at the destination and parking.

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Anonymous Coward

Argument from personal incredulity

Ah - your own individual circumstances, always a good argument

I need a car that can do 500 miles on one refuel and carry 5 people and a dog so electric cars are impractical.

I need a computer with a 21 inch high res CRT and the ability to play Duke Nukem at 15 frames per second therefore who would ever buy a 7 inch tablet without a keyboard?

I need to run a 2000 watt vacuum cleaner 24 hours a day so solar power will never work.

I live in a dense urban area so delivery drones can't happen.

Now I can't quite see me getting my next bit of random Chinese tat dropped from above by Amazon, but I can easily see how if I was in a village in Liberia rather desperately wanting some Ebola vaccine it might be quite handy.

Actually - high value cargo, a degree of shall we say 'anonymity', ability to cross borders simply - their business plan is getting clearer!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Argument from personal incredulity

Actually, it's not from personal incredulity - his considerations are valid because Google was not stating it was aiming at Ebola deliveries in a desert - in a more dense population this is indeed madness, and not just for the arguments mooted.

This drone project shows precisely the same deficiencies as their self driving car project: an assumption that somehow maps will magically update themselves to local circumstances. I wonder why - have they discovered that creating enough intelligence to deal with issues on the fly will deprive them of the sort of live information they can sell? What if someone has just put up a washing line, what are they going to do, buy local politicians to ban that?

Sorry to drone on (cough), but there is another question I have: let's assume for a moment that the irrational has happened anyway and Google drones are now all over the place. Who is responsible for checking the payload? What if some crazed idiot sends a parcel with bio weapons or some fun stuff with a timing device? Come to think of it, sounds like a potential for a self driving car as well - jack the thing and send it on its way.

I am not inclined to welcome anything new as revolutionary until I'm sure it cannot be abused by revolutionaries..

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Argument from personal incredulity

Thing is, you're not stating anything that probably could be done already with existing technology. Having a self-driving car isn't going to matter much for a suicide car bomber. Likewise, the kind of payload needed to drop a bioweapon in to the atmosphere should already be possible with a model airplane.

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Re: Argument from personal incredulity

I, personally, guarantee that all the technical problems can be solved.

What the author, and any reasonable person, is questioning is whether they can be solved in an economically efficient manner.

People talk about mining asteroids. Well, we (the human race) have just landed a space-facing 'drone' on a COMET; we have the ability to mine asteroids right now! It will just cost us more (in time, money and resources) than we can hope to get back from the endeavour.

To a lesser extent, the same is true for drone delivery, at least in modern, high-density urban areas. It can be made to work, but what is the benefit?

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Re: Argument from personal incredulity

I, personally, guarantee that all the technical problems can be solved.

What a peculiar thing to claim. What do we get if one or more of the problems turns out to be intractable?

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Re: Argument from personal incredulity

An image of me with crow on plate and fork in hand.

It was a peculiar thing to say but yesterday was a rather strange day, all around.

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Re: Argument from personal incredulity

Model aeroplanes don't have much of a range so leave the offender at risk himself with something like bioweapons. Likewise a self-driving car is going to attract nutters too, not just those willing to give their lives as martyrs by suicide bombing. There is a huge difference between deciding if you want to kill yourself with a suicide bomb and sending a bomb off to explode somewhere else while you're tucked up nice and safe watching from a distance.

The biggest problem I envisage Google facing is people nicking the drones and their payloads, and the other issue of claiming the item hasn't arrived which any ebay seller will tell you is a huge problem for low value items, or expensive items which some idiot seller has decided to save a few bucks by sending via a method which doesn't require a signature. If you have drones delivering items and not asking for signatures half the world are going to be claiming they never received their item.

I also think most people seem to have completely forgotten just how many of these things are going to be needed if they are to replace delivery services. There would be literally hundreds, maybe thousands of them flying around the average city. Nobody has mentioned what is likely to happen from a public outcry when engines start failing and they start crashing into people or traffic, maybe on a busy motorway, resulting in deaths and serious injuries, (likewise with driverless cars) and it will happen.

No consideration seems to have been given how they will cope with bad weather either, wind, rain, snow and so on. It can change very quickly in some parts of the world and even full sized aircraft are still brought down by such things. What chance would a drone have?

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Anonymous Coward

And the other side of the story?

Chris, as a journalist I take it you have asked Google how they intend to go about those various questions you raise. What was their response?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: And the other side of the story?

That would require research and reporting no? Do we get that here?

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Re: And the other side of the story?

Chris, as a journalist I take it you have asked Google how they intend to go about those various questions you raise.

AC, may I suggest that, as a reader, you investigate the concept of the "editorial"?

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Hunting license please

Me: Yes sir, I'd like a license permit.

Plod: What will you be hunting this season?

Me: Let's see, snipe, err um, deer, quail and drones.

Plod: I'm sorry to say we don't allow snipe hunting....

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Pirate

Why?

I can maybe understand the self-driving car thing as some Googolian's "personal project" to demonstrate his utter pwnage of the phrase "boffin", but why would Google want a fleet of automated drones flying around? I can understand Amazon's burning wish for such things, but what does Google get out of it? They don't sell much except our search history and the contents of our gmail accounts. Certainly we aren't expected to wait for Google search results to arrive by drone, are we? Or is this how they intend to return search results to diehard users still running IE 6 and Firefox 3.x?

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Re: Why?

The US Gov ( and others worldwide ) doesn't want shit loads of these things buzzing about up there, so Google realises this and wants to get in there first. They can then provide a delivery service to others for a huge fee. If Amazon, UPS, Fedex, et al can't get their own licenses, Google are on to a nice little earner and imagine Google getting their grubby mitts on all that logistics data? Goldmine!!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Why?

Perhaps the article is mixing things up. It would be Amazon that would need to learn about landing sites and so on, but for Google, I would imagine this would be a way to augment their mapping data without having to resort to cars. It would likely depend on the ownership of airspace where they intend to fly these things.

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Re: Why?

> but what does Google get out of it?

I can't imagine any reason at all why Google would be interested in being paid to collect a continuous feed of low altitude high resolution images of populated areas....

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Re: Why?

Plus the subversion of any such system by the state/military.

Imagine the term "Google target with extreme prejudice" being common in future.

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Re: Why?

Plus the subversion of any such system by the state/military.

Imagine the term "Google target with extreme prejudice" being common in future.

That chimes with something I was thinking earlier: what if Google is simply aiming at opening up another revenue stream by selling (more) to Government, this time the military? Bomb dropping drones? We got it. Shooting robots? We're working on it. Spy photos of all the population? Just use our raw Streetview and upcoming Google Glass footage. Wifi grabs? We will make sure we won't get caught again but yes, that's well out of beta now. Population intelligence? We scan every mail received and sent on our platforms (etc etc).

There's a lot of money they can pull in that way if it wasn't for the ethical problems. Oh, wait ...

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Re: Why?

They can then provide a delivery service to others for a huge fee.

No, they can't, because existing delivery services don't charge huge fees. There's nothing about magic drone delivery that makes it significantly more valuable than what postal services / shipping companies / couriers now provide.

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Re: Why?

Surely it's obvious? They would get the same out of it as Ford do selling trucks and Boeing do selling aircraft. They would simply sell either the technology, the drones themselves or the rights to use the technology, or would sell the delivery service itself to the likes of Amazon.

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Re: Why?

Huh? If governments don't want them they are simply going to ban them. How is that going to benefit Google?

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Anonymous Coward

The task is impossible

not that I'm a fan of google, quite the reverse, but the word "impossible!" must have been cropping up pretty regularly over the course of development (good and bad) of the so-called human kind and I bet it has added and extra kick to those inventing the opposite of "impossible"...

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Re: The task is impossible

Impossibru.jpg

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Re: The task is impossible

Which are more tiresome - those who insist that something is impossible, or the sophomores who always contradict them with this particular argumentum ad verecundiam?

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Happy

Hurrah for the human pilots

"No? Like hundreds of them doing a really, really boring job? Thought not. So these are self-guided drones."

I wouldn't mind doing that for a while, heck, I almost do it anyway from time to time on Google Earth.

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Re: Like hundreds of them doing a really, really boring job?

It is probably true that these drones are meant to be self-guided. But if you think Google does not have hundreds of employees somewhere doing a really, really boring job, you are probably wrong.

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Please remember that this is America.

There are shotguns in America. Lots of shotguns. And plenty of bored people who would think it good sport to take pot shots at these drones. Frankly, there are some very bored engineers and executives working at Google. And Amazon.

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Re: Please remember that this is America.

I predict Google's next purchase will be a company specialising in armour plating. Or perhaps camouflage (aka "blue paint").

Seriously? It will be sending live data back to Google. Shoot it down and your mug shot will be emailed to law enforcement. And thereafter there'll be one less gun nut on the street. Everybody wins!

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Stated Goals

Googles original vision for this project was to deliver defibrillators in an emergency to inaccessible areas and its stated enlarged goal is for delivering emergency items in areas where the infrastructure has been decimated, through earthquakes or other natural disasters and war etc. Also the possibility for the delivery of drugs or medical devices to people in inaccessible areas holds great promise...

It is not being developed as a home delivery system although should the tech become good enough in the future that may be possible in certain suitable areas..

Collision detection is routine on most high end drones now along with image recognition, real time 3D mapping etc etc and getting better all the time. As it currently stands it's in its infancy but it's aims are achievable with current technology.

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Re: Stated Goals

First and foremost. . . Not a big fan of Google for a variety of reasons--Its decreasing ability to deliver relevant results to my searches being at the top, followed by privacy concerns, and with envy being admittedly somewhere not too far down the list.

The point made in "Stated Goals" that there will be situations where the technology will be suitable and others where it won't is spot on. "Where it won't" is more likely to be driven by economic and legal considerations than technical. Ultimately it will come down to a cost/risk/benefit analysis on the part of providers (Google will not be the only one using the technology), customers, government (wait a minute, we can TAX the use of these suckers!), and a myriad of third parties.

Some random thoughts: Ordering a $5.00 magazine sounds like a cool way to acquire a sophisticated drone to get the parts.

Just because you can land a drone on top of my apartment doesn't mean that the owner is going to allow folks to go traipsing willy-nilly across the roof. (Flat roofs are prone to leak and are damnably expensive to repair.)

For any level of operability in urban areas, figuring out liability and insurance is going to take a while. We've had the technology for doing unmanned air transport for decades, and it hasn't happened.

For the same reason even for rail transport--arguably about as constrained an environment as one can get--unmanned operations are only common in situations like theme parks and airports, where the entire environment is under ownership and control of a specific entity.

Again, I'm anything but a fan of Google. But, in this case my impression is that the hyperbole in the article looks more like the writer's than Google's.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Stated Goals

"For the same reason even for rail transport--arguably about as constrained an environment as one can get--unmanned operations are only common in situations like theme parks and airports, where the entire environment is under ownership and control of a specific entity."

The Docklands Light Railway in London is apparently automatic - and LRT would like the Underground to go that way too.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Docklands_Light_Railway

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Re: Stated Goals

Perhaps I've misunderstood, but a defibrillator needs to be on location, or very near by, before the emergency. Hence the push to get the automatic kind (AED) into shopping malls, community centres and the like.

picture on this page http://www.bhf.org.uk/heart-health/life-saving-skills/defibrillators.aspx shows one marked "IPAD" (apparently from Public Access Defibrillation )

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Re: Stated Goals

"The Docklands Light Railway in London is apparently automatic"

The Lille Metro has been fully automatic for longer than the DLR. And unlike the DLR, there are *no* staff on the trains.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lille_Metro

It offers trains once a minute during peak times.

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