Google scraps VTOL design, back to the drawing board

Not a surprise for anyone who has tried dealing with VTOL sporks drones, which are easy to take off but very tricky to land precisely in a wind due to the sail wing. From the WSJ:

Google has scrapped its initial drone design because it was difficult to control and is now working on a new version, according to Astro Teller, head of the Internet company’s Google X research lab.

Teller told the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Tex., that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin encourage such failures, so researchers can learn from the mistakes and try different technologies and strategies.

In August, Google unveiled a drone-delivery system called Project Wing that the Internet giant was testing. The prototype had a five-foot single wing that sat vertically on the ground and then turned horizontal after take-off. The design was supposed to combine the benefits of vertical, hovering take-offs and landings with the speed of wing-based flying. In the test, the drones carried supplies including vaccines, water and radios to farmers in Queensland, Australia.

The drone was mechanically simpler than other types of drones, but it was harder to control, Teller said on Tuesday. It didn’t hover well in high winds and its cargo shifted too much when the wing moved up and down, he explained.

Google began working on drones in 2011. It’s not clear when it began experimenting with the single-wing design, but Teller said half the team “knew it was the wrong answer” after eight months. After 18 months, about 80% of the team thought this, he added.

The team debated whether to scrap the design or test it quickly in public. Brin told the team they had five months to make deliveries to real people, which wasn’t enough time to come up with a different design, so the team went ahead with the Australia test with their existing prototype, Teller said.

“Even though Sergey’s five-month thing prolonged the problem, it created an end date for it,” Teller said. “It’s possible without that we would have extended the wrong thing even longer.”

Before the Australia tests, the team was already working on a new design that moves away from the single-wing-based approach, he noted

“They’re now working on that vehicle,” Teller said. He plans an update on the status of this new drone later this year.

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Comment by Thomas J Coyle III on March 18, 2015 at 4:04pm

Even with big corporations with lots of manpower, you win some and you lose some:-)



Comment by Joe Renteria on March 18, 2015 at 5:09pm
Would love to see...
Comment by Gary McCray on March 18, 2015 at 6:22pm

The early manned tail sitter VTOL planes had the same problems both prop and jet.

Landings were a nightmare.

Basically those wings sticking out vertically make control a real problem in any kind of gusts or wind.

And with these comparatively much lighter UAVs, much worse.

I'm surprised it took them 18 months to figure that out.

Comment by mP1 on March 18, 2015 at 6:40pm

Why dont they just rotate the wings and keep the tail down approach, at least that removes the sail in the wind effect.

Comment by Rob_Lefebvre on March 18, 2015 at 7:08pm

Yes, rotating wings work really well. ;)

Dear Google, just sayin'  :D

Comment by Rob_Lefebvre on March 18, 2015 at 7:09pm

That's a small copter, 1700g.

Comment by Jack Crossfire on March 18, 2015 at 7:24pm

Does all of Google apply analytics to what percentage of an engineering team thinks something is a bad idea & treat the 5 month rule as a wall which must not be crossed?  How do these guys ever make a coffee?

Comment by John Dennings on March 18, 2015 at 8:35pm

Rob, as much as I believe helis are superior in many areas, and your related work rocks ...

Unless you can figure out some kind of prop guard, and this seems hard given pitch requirements, a high speed  4 foot+ rotating lawn-mower like propeller just won't cut it, and is not going to fly, with the likes of Google, DHL, or Amazon ... Anti-pun and pun non-intended and intended, respectively   -:)

Fixed wing  with tilt-rotors other than tail-sitter?

Comment by JB on March 18, 2015 at 9:05pm

lol Rob

At it again hey? Poor old copters just can't catch a break! ;-)

Do you have a video that shows how a heli performs in the wind with a big box strapped underneath? I'd then like to see what the neighbors say when the blades do the hedge trimming for them when it delivers a package to me!


Generally I think drone parcel deliveries directly to homes are a silly idea regardless of the aircraft used.

I'd prefer to adopt distributed manufacturing technology (aka replicators) and only have to deliver a "digital blueprint of the idea" for my next phone or pizza. Much more efficient, safe, environmentally friendly plus decentralized, redundant and customizable to boot.

What product is so urgently required that a drone must be used to deliver it from warehouse to front door? Milk? Iphone? or a VHS tape? Maybe deliver an drone-e-book? or UAV-e-mail lol :-) This is more a media stunt, and if at all feasible, it's only so that large corporations like Amazon and Co can monopolise the market by killing off local manufacturing, shops and sales, to make deliveries of things we don't really need, and were persuaded we wanted, for lack of anything more tangible in our lives. :-p

I can't think of one item that couldn't be picked up more safely and conveniently from a local "depot" instead, which depending on the depot distribution could only add a few minutes to the transit time if both the product and the customer leave at the same time to meet at the depot. Normal deliveries from the depot can also happen to the front door using more conventional "postmen". Aircraft and landing zones could then be managed safely at least...and some high demand products could be stored locally as well...funny I thought we'd already invented shops. The only reason to "cut out" the middle man is greed, in the pursuit to centralize worthless fiat currency, mandated by the corp-o-rate act, to follow profit capitalism to environmental doom. ;-)

The only real currency is time, so why waste it by developing systems of no consequence? Delivering bulk "raw material" to local distributed manufacturing before delivery to home makes much more sense and cuts out a lot of systems and ideas that are long past their not to be consumed after expiry date.

The only direct to door delivery system that I consider useful is for remote places where it takes to long, or the terrain is difficult to travel. And of course for SAR first responder aid etc. But then an entirely different beast would be required, not something that can only do 5-10km hops with a few kg on board.

Besides the lack of safety around UAV's carrying large loads, what is the procedure against hijacking or catching a delivery drone with a net as demonstrated recently by some other "stupid" UAV ideas? It would seem the drone wars are only outdone by dumb idea wars.

Has no-one at Google/Amazon ever watched Wall-e? Just wait a minute while I maneuver my hover chair and grab a drone delivered shake....ahh that's better....what level of comfort is still healthy? ;-)

Comment by John Dennings on March 18, 2015 at 9:45pm

JB > Generally I think drone parcel deliveries directly to homes are a silly idea regardless of the aircraft used.

Except it will happen ...  :-)

10 years maybe, according to Amazon? Maybe sooner than that. Just give it some time ...


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