Google sister company Project Wing chooses Googong as autonomous drone delivery test site

Project Wing co-leader James Ryan Burgess with the delivery drone set to be trialled at Fernleigh Park.  Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Project Wing co-leader James Ryan Burgess with the delivery drone set to be trialled at Fernleigh Park. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Googong has been announced as the major testing site of the X company's (formerly Google X) autonomous drone delivery system.

Project Wing, a sister company of Google, arrived in Googong on Saturday to test their latest innovation. Co-leader of the project James Ryan Burgess said the company plans to be here for the foreseeable future.

Testing is due to begin within the next few days at Fernleigh Park.

Mr Burgess, who is based in San Francisco, said the region provided a suitable test area for several reasons.

"Given the large estates and lots here, we're able to fly and do deliveries without flying over populated areas," Mr Burgess said.

"We did some research in the Canberra area and more broadly and we found that the Googonians were quite positive to new technology and innovation.

"We're excited to be in a place that will be welcoming to new innovation and new ways of doing things."

"We want to give all our devotion and attention to this area."

This is just the second time that Project Wing have tested their drone delivery service in Australia.

In 2014 a farmer in outback Queensland became the first person not affiliated with X to receive a delivery. It was of Cherry Ripes. 

Mr Burgess said the drone is capable of delivering up to 1.5 kilograms of goods, and could carry anything from milk to medicines.

The drone has been substantially modified from those previously tested in Australia. It now features 12 hover motors. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The drone has been substantially modified from those previously tested in Australia. It now features 12 hover motors. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

He said that having prior experience in Australia and a good relationship with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority helped the decision to come to the region.

Googong presented an interesting opportunity for Project Wing as it is a rapidly growing area but one that is not serviced by a shopping precinct.

Having participants that are forced to travel for basic supplies "shows the value proposition of what we offer," said Mr Burgess.

Testing of the drones will occur in the Fernleigh Park area for the next two to three weeks, with expansion expected from there. 

Mr Burgess said the company's intention is to test in suburbs of Canberra, however, he couldn't confirm a timeframe for when this would take place.

"We have the approvals and regulations [from CASA] we can comply with to date for these tests, and then we're working towards ongoing approval and further expansion of the tests for a later date," Mr Burgess said.

CASA spokesman Peter Gibson said the authority was eager to see autonomous aircraft have a future in Australia.

"We're very keen to foster this innovation and development, providing the safety precautions are met," Mr Gibson said.

Managing the safety of those involved in the tests had been a major focus for the Project Wing team.

The drone is a very different model to the one tested in Queensland, notably for its 12 hover motors that allow for different motors to be utilised in case of an emergency.

"Safety comes first for us," Mr Burgess said.

"There are risks in everyday situations. Even with a delivery driver taking an automobile, that's not a zero-risk.

He said their approach was to have better safety rates than existing transport technologies.

While the drone is capable of fully automated operation, all flights in the Fernleigh Park tests will be under supervision of a pilot on the ground that can override controls if necessary.

Residents of Fernleigh Park were consulted about the plans to test delivery drones on Saturday at a community event. They will have the opportunity to opt-in to the tests and receive packages via drone.

Mr Burgess said they were in conversation with a number of interested residents.

Moving forward with the testing depends on the feedback received in the initial stages, Mr Burgess said.

Testing in this region will focus on how users of the service found the experience rather than technical capabilities of the drones, which has largely been tested in the USA.

Coming from the highly competitive world of Silicon Valley, most of the company's previous projects - including self-driving cars and Google Brain - have been kept tightly under wraps.

While Mr Burgess said that expansion into other parts of Australia may happen eventually, the focus now is on the Canberra region.

"We expect to be maintaining a continuous presence in the Canberra and NSW area," he said.

"Our intention is to be here for the foreseeable future."