Friends and colleagues were aware, at some level, that Nick Roy, a researcher in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), had been using his sabbatical to take on some sort of robotics-related role at Google.
But few people knew the full scope of his work until this past week, when Google X — the infamous idea incubator known for Google Glass, self-driving cars, and wireless hot-air balloons — unveiled a video introducing Project Wing, an ambitious delivery-drone initiative that Roy has overseen for the past two years.
At Google X’s secret Mountain View headquarters, Roy, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, led a team of several dozen autonomy experts to determine the technical feasibility of self-flying delivery vehicles.
Project Wing lined up nicely with Roy’s work as head of CSAIL’s Robust Robotics Group, which focuses in part on sensing, planning, and controlling unmanned vehicles in environments without GPS. He even brought on board a handful of key MIT collaborators, including recent graduates Abraham Bachrach PhD ’13 and Adam Bry SM ’11, whose state-estimation algorithms have drastically improved unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) navigation in indoor spaces.
“The culture at Google X is surprisingly similar to CSAIL,” Roy says. “They’re both forums for ideas, where people are thinking not just about what can be fixed today, but the big questions that, ten or twenty years down the road, we’ll look back at and wonder how they hadn’t been answered yet.”
Polish unmanned air vehicle manufacturer Flytronic is using the MSPO defence show in Kielce to highlight its range, as Poland’s military looks to acquire systems across five weight categories.
Pride of place on its stand is the Manta LE, a hybrid-engined intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform that can offer vertical take-off and landing capability, as well as regular flight.
A pair of ducted fans concealed beneath covers in the wings provides vertical lift. The covers open and close automatically as the VTOL mode is engaged or disengaged.
Other comparable systems have tended to use tiltrotor technology to enable the transition to forward flight. However, says Marcin Pczycki, project manager at Flytronic, the company chose the ducted fans to reduce the number of complicated components that present difficulties over reliability.
So far, around 30 flights have been performed using three prototypes, says Pczycki, including VTOL manoeuvres.
Power for both the ducted fans and tail-mounted propellers comes from lithium-ion batteries that are continuously charged in flight by a small petrol-powered engine. The powerplant can even be switched off while airborne to enable a “quiet approach”, says Pczycki. “We are sure enough about ignition that we can switch [the engine] off and then start it again [in flight],” he adds.
Endurance for the Manta LE in its standard mode is around 20h; or 8h with VTOL operation. Maximum take-off weight also reduces from 140kg (308lb) to 70kg in VTOL mode, with empty weight at 50kg. Its wingspan is 6.6m (22ft).
NATICK, Mass., 27 Aug. 2014. U.S. Army researchers needed synthetic aperture radar (SAR) systems for a variety of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) systems. They found their solution from IMSAR LLC in Springville, Utah.
Officials of the Army Contracting Command at Natick, Mass., announced a $99 million contract to IMSAR last week for research and development, rapid advancement, and integration of small-aperture radars on small unmanned aerial systems (UAS).
IMSAR specializes in small radar systems, digital signal processing, radar, manufacturing, and inertial measurement systems. The Army Contracting Command-Natick supports the Army’s Natick Soldier System Center (NSSC), which develops technologies for combat effectiveness and survivability for U.S. soldiers.
A man named Neil Parfitt is standing in a field on a cattle ranch outside Warwick, Australia. A white vehicle appears above the trees, a tiny plane a bit bigger than a seagull. It glides towards Parfitt, pitches upwards to a vertical position, and hovers near him, a couple hundred feet in the air. From its belly, a package comes tumbling downward, connected by a thin line to the vehicle itself. Right before the delivery hits the ground, it slows, hitting the earth with a tap. The delivery slows, almost imperceptibly, just before it hits the ground, hardly kicking up any dust. A small rectangular module on the end of the line detaches the payload, and ascends back up the vehicle, locking into place beneath the nose. As the wing returns to flying posture and zips back to its launch point half a mile away, Parfitt walks over to the package, opens it up, and extracts some treats for his dogs.
The Australian test flight and 30 others like it conducted in mid-August are the culmination of the first phase of Project Wing, a secret drone program that’s been running for two years at Google X, the company’s whoa-inducing, long-range research lab.
Though a couple of rumors have escaped the Googleplex—because of course Google must have a drone-delivery program—Project Wing’s official existence and substance were revealed today. I’ve spent the past week talking to Googlers who worked on the project, reviewing video of the flights, and interviewing other people convinced delivery by drone will work.
Taken with the company’s other robotics investments, Google’s corporate posture has become even more ambitious. Google doesn’t just want to organize all the world’s information. Google wants to organize all the world.
During this initial phase of development, Google landed on an unusual design called a tail sitter, a hybrid of a plane and a helicopter that takes off vertically, then rotates to a horizontal position for flying around. For delivery, it hovers and winches packages down to the ground. At the end of the tether, there’s a little bundle of electronics they call the “egg,” which detects that the package has hit the ground, detaches from the delivery, and is pulled back up into the body of the vehicle.
That Parfitt would be the man on the receiving end of the tests was mostly happenstance. Google’s partner in the country, Phil Swinsburg of Unmanned Systems Australia, convinced him to take part in the demonstration deliveries launched from a nearby farm. (Australia’s “remotely piloted aircraft” policies are more permissive than those in the United States.)
Standing with Parfitt as he received dog treats from a flying robot was Nick Roy, the MIT roboticist who took a two-year sabbatical to lead Project Wing. In all the testing, Roy had never seen one of his drones deliver a package. He was always at the takeoff point, watching debugging information scroll up the screen, and anxiously waiting to see what would happen. “Sergey [Brin] has been bugging me, asking, ‘What is it like? Is it actually a nice experience to get this?’ and I’m like, ‘Dude, I don’t know. I’m looking at the screen,’” Roy told me.
So, this time, as he prepared to end his tour of duty at Google X and return to MIT, he watches as the Wing swoops and delivers. Recalling that moment, he struggles not to sound too rapturous or lose his cool technical objectivity. “Once the package is down and the egg is back up, the vehicle gains altitude, and does this beautiful arc, and it’s off again,” he said. “That was delightful.”
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