GoogleX is building and flying UAVs in the Australian outback. Codenamed Project Wing, Google’s super stealthy initiative was just announced to the public via The Atlantic in this exclusive article. The hybrid UAV delivers small packages by hovering in place (pictured above) and lowering it’s payloads using a thin line connected to the UAV itself. Once the package nears the ground, it detaches from the line which “ascends back up the vehicle, locking into place beneath the nose.” According to the BBC, “Google said that its long-term goal was to develop drones that could be used for disaster relief by delivering aid to isolated areas. They could be used after earthquakes, floods, or extreme weather events, the company suggested, to take small items such as medicines or batteries to people in areas that conventional vehicles cannot reach.”
“Even just a few of these, being able to shuttle nearly continuously could service a very large number of people in an emergency situation,” according to Google. Project Wing was initially focused on “delivering defibrillators to help people who have had heart attacks. The key factor in the success of using a defibrillator is how quickly it is deployed, so saving a few minutes of transit time could make for a lifesaving application,” writes The Atlantic. “When you have a tool like this you can really allow the operators of those emergency services to add an entirely new dimension to the set of tools and solutions that they can think of,” says Google’s new lead for Project Wing.
The multi-billion dollar companies Google and Amazon aren’t alone in exploring the use of UAVs for payload delivery, however. As I wrote earlier this week, both the World Health Organization (WHO) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) are experimenting with UAVs as are colleagues at UNICEF. And as a pivotal United Nations Report on UAVs notes, the Gates Foundation and MIT have been developing small UAVs that can be deployed “via SMS to swiftly transport small quantities of vaccines to clinics or health workers in isolated locations when roads were out, or the quantities don’t justify a car or truck delivery.”
The advanced research and development (R&D) carried by Google and Amazon will no doubt benefit WHO, MSF, UNICEF and others in the humanitarian UAV space—particularly if they develop their programs in a way that allows other groups to tap into their infrastructure. As one UAV expert notes, “The significance of what Google does, to me, is less in the vehicles they use here and now.” Perhaps far more important is Google (and Amazon) implementing the infrastructure that’s needed to facilitate innovation in the UAV space. The detect-and -avoid systems “will need to be certified,” for example, “and Google could help governments figure out how to do so.”
These are all exciting and promising developments for the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators), which promotes the safe and responsible use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. The Network’s Advisory Board includes representatives from the Red Cross as well as the United Nations in addition to key UAV experts. UAViators (pronounced You-Aviators) is co-organizing the first ever “Experts Meeting on Humanitarian UAVs” this fall at UN Headquarters in New York. On the agenda for this meeting is the use of UAVs for imagery capture and beyond, that is, for payload delivery. So I hope my colleagues at Google Crisis Response will attend the meeting so we can discuss how humanitarian organizations might leverage Google’s UAVs in the near future.
My forthcoming book Digital Humanitarians (2015) explores the use of UAVs for disaster response as well as the roles that satellite imagery, social media and cell phone data are playing in relief efforts today.
- Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
- WHO Using UAVs to Transport Medical Supplies [link]
- Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
- Humanitarian UAVs Fly in China After Earthquake [link]
- Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
- TripAdvisor for International UAV/Drone Travel [link]
- UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]