Showing posts with label Technology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Technology. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Project Wing vs. Prime Air: Google's Drones Soar Above Amazon's

Move over, Amazon. Google has just entered the commercial drone arms race with Project Wing, an until-now secret program to develop "self-flying vehicles" to deliver small packages, similar to Amazon's Prime Air.

Both programs are still years away from coming to fruition, with prototype drones — or, more accurately, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — completing only the most basic of test flights. However, the drones have been in development for a while, with notably different approaches to drone design. Google has been working on drones for two years; Amazon announced its program in December of last year.

For Project Wing, Google (actually Google X, the company's division in charge of "moonshot" projects) eventually settled on a tail-sitting aircraft design, which combines elements of a helicopter and a fixed-wing airplane. Rotors are mounted toward the front of the plane, which lift the plane from the ground since it sits with its tail pointed downward. Once it's in the air, it can reorient itself to fly like a plane, which lets it fly faster than a typical copter design.

Hybrid theory

Google says the aircraft shown in its test video is one of many iterations and shouldn't be taken as the final design for Project Wing. Nevertheless, Google may have settled on the ideal design for drone delivery: a craft that can take off and land slowly and safely, has the ability to hover so it can take its time when unloading its cargo, and can also fly like a plane so it can travel large distances quickly and efficiently.

"With vertical and horizontal flight, speed and efficiency come into the equation,"Google spokesperson Raymond Gobberg told Mashable. "The fixed wing helps it get there faster, but then when it transitions into hover, we're able to lower the package.But this is only one of vehicles we're testing."

The ability to stop and hover is in no way unique to Project Wing, but it is the key feature for delivering packages, and it's why most drones feature a helicopter or ducted-fan design. After all, most customers won't have room for a runway for a drone to land on, and parachuting packages from above isn't really an option (Google tried it and found that wind affected precise targeting too much, according to The Atlantic, which first reported on Project Wing on Thursday).

In Amazon's teaser video for Prime Air, a drone first lands in front of a house, drops its payload, then flies off a few seconds later. It's very simple, although some people criticized the depiction, saying that anything with rotating blades will be tempting to kids and curious onlookers, which represents a safety risk.

Google apparently agrees, which is why it decided to add a winch to the drone to perform the actual delivery. The tail-sitting design allows the drone to hover over the delivery target, then drop the item, attached to a fishing line, letting gravity pull it down at 10 meters per second (m/s). When it gets close to the ground, it slows things down to 2 m/s.

Once it gets to Earth, it releases the package and retracts the cable, leaving the drone high in the air and away from any potentially meddling hands. Conversely, Amazon's drop-ship approach isn't inherently unsafe, but it does introduce a wild card that Project Wing doesn't.

Google's drone would also theoretically have a longer range than Amazon's Prime Air drone, which uses a typical octocopter design. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has said the current range of the company's test drones is 10 miles, although that program is in the early stages as well. Google declined to give any kind of range spec for the Project Wing drones, but a spokesperson did say one of the reasons it picked a tail-sitting design was the increased range.
"Amazon's model was a 10-mile radius — five pounds within 30 minutes — which they estimate that is about 80% of the things they deliver," said Mike Toscano, CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. "Now you've got Google saying, 'I'm going to places like the Outback, where you've got 100 miles to deliver something, where it's very costly to deliver a five-pound package.' This is the way to get those long distances."

The human is the error

If tail-sitting aircraft are so beneficial, why hasn't the Air Force — or anyone else, for that matter — deployed one? They have, although almost all designs never flew past the experimental prototype phase. The main reason tail-sitters never caught on is because the continual changes in orientation are hard on the pilot, who could be facing forward one minute and upward the next.
"The reason you couldn't have that technology before is because the human being couldn't handle the vertigo," Toscano said. "The electronics can handle 9-10 G's; a human being can only handle 3-5. These are compelling reasons to go with automated vehicles or self-driving cars. From an engineering standpoint, you eliminate the weak link, and that's us."

If your pilot's a computer, though, that's not a problem. Drones don't suffer from spatial disorientation or brain trauma if they maneuver in ways that would damage a flesh-and-blood pilot. And the craft doesn't require the complexities of rotating sections or jet engines, like other plane designs for vertical takeoff and landing (VToL) that are in use.
With Project Wing, Google has taken an aircraft design from history's junk pile and turned it into a template for the future of drone delivery. We're still years away from getting backscratchers flown right to our front doors, but the armada of flying robots transporting them may end up looking more unusual than we ever thought.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Google Chrome comes to Cuba

Havana - Google Chrome has finally touched down in Cuba. In a Google+ post Wednesday, Google blames American export controls and sanctions that may prohibit the access of certain tools in Cuba.

"U.S. export controls and sanctions can sometimes limit the products available in certain countries. As these trade restrictions evolve we’ve been working to figure out how to make more tools available in sanctioned countries," the company said in a post.

Although many may have found ways to download Chrome through other channels, the browser is now available across all platforms, such as Mac OS X, Android, Windows and iOS.

According to The Verge, this announcement comes just a couple of months after Google CEO Eric Schmidt and a group of web activists visited Cuba in June, campaigning for "open and free Internet.”

The Cuban government has been trying to make Cuba more Internet accessible by opening more than a hundred Internet cafes and offering DSL service to residents. However, that does not mean that Cubans have easy access to the Internet. Only 3% of Cubans use the Internet, making the country one of the least connected places in the world.

In the past few years, Google has also pushed for Chrome access to Syria, Iran, Myanmar and North Korea.