What is it with delivery drones and burritos? The Burrito Bomber was one of the very early drone delivery concepts to emerge back in 2012, then last year Alphabet began bringing Chipotle burritos to students of Virginia Tech. Now the tech giant will start using experimental aircraft to drop off tightly wrapped tubes of rice 'n' beans to folk in rural Australia as it looks to step up its drone delivery game.
Australia, as it happens, is actually where it all started for Google's delivery drone research venture, called Project Wing. Now under the control of parent company Alphabet, the project was revealed in 2014 and not a whole lot of progress has been made since then, but that doesn't mean its autonomous delivery dreams are being parked entirely.
Last year Alphabet won approval to start trialling its drones at Virginia Tech, one of six sites the Federal Aviation Administration allows for drone testing in the US. Those trials allowed students at Virginia Tech to place an order, have their food prepared in a Chipotle truck onsite and then brought to them by Project Wing's drones.
Much of what we hear about delivery drones has to do with moving goods around dense urban spaces, but rural parts of the world stand to benefit in a big way, too. We are already seeing this play out in parts of Africa, where drones are delivering vital medical supplies in regions where rugged terrain and lack of road infrastructure make traditional deliveries difficult, and Project Wing is finding that parts of Australia aren't all that different.
For folks living on the outskirts of the Australian Capital Territory in the country's southeast, a forgotten bottle of milk or carton of eggs can mean a 40-minute round trip to the store. These are the types of people taking part in the latest phase of Project Wing's testing.
Project Wing has teamed up with Mexican food chain Guzman y Gomez, along with pharmacy chain Chemist Warehouse to allow customers to order items through a dedicated app. The drones are then sent off to collect goods from the stores' loading sites and dropping off to the testers at their homes, traveling at up to 120 km/h (75 mph).
This presents a new challenge for Project Wing. Its earlier testing involved dropping items off in open fields and spaces, whereas now its drones are tasked with lowering items into yards where they encounter trees, sheds, fences and power lines. In this way, Project Wing is training its drones to deliver items anywhere, using its sensors to identify new obstacles and each time that it does so, improving the onboard algorithms and its capacity to pick out a safe spot for delivery.
The tests kicked off a few weeks ago, and Project Wing expects them to continue over the coming months. You can hear from some of the locals taking part in the video below.