Alphabet Grounding Its Big Drone Project?


The Great Alphabet Housecleaning of 2016 continues: the search-engine giant is reportedly cutting back on Project Wing, which is devoted to commercializing drone technology.

Project Wing is part of the X research lab, the latter tasked with investigating and producing technology “moonshots” for Alphabet, the holding company that also contains Google and Nest. Project Wing, dedicated to building drones that can “deliver everything from consumer goods to emergency medicine,” has reportedly frozen new hiring, and eliminated a potential partnership with Starbucks that would have seen drones delivering coffee.

“Project Wing has the potential to remove a big chunk of the friction in how physical things are moved around in the world,” an Alphabet spokesperson wrote in an email to Bloomberg, which broke the story about the shutdown. “What we’re doing now is developing the next phase of our technology, and as always are thinking in a very broad way about all the potential use cases for delivery by unmanned aerial systems.”

If that language seems familiar to you, it’s probably because you read Google’s January 2015 blog posting that announced the shutdown of the Google Glass Explorer Program. “We’re continuing to build for the future, and you’ll start to see future versions of Glass when they’re ready,” read part of that posting.

In Alphabet’s world, products and initiatives aren’t shuttered for lack of feasibility or budget; they’re just temporarily mothballed so engineers can work on the “next phase” or “future version.” Whether new-and-improved versions of these products will eventually reach the market is anyone’s guess, although Alphabet’s aggressive cost-cutting measures leave such outcomes in serious doubt. That belt-tightening has also affected Google Fiber, Alphabet’s attempt to weave high-speed broadband through a growing collection of U.S. cities.

Although drones have evolved into more of a mainstream product in recent years, they face some significant regulatory hurdles—something to keep in mind if you’re a tech pro interested in working in the space. Companies such as GoPro having to recall their drones in the face of technical and safety concerns certainly haven’t helped make the case that clouds of drones are ready to fill the skies above America. The following video, snapped from a GoPro Karma on its unexpected way back to earth, is exactly the sort of thing that worries the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as it tries to regulate the space:

If Amazon makes good on its attempts to commercialize drones, that could change the equation for Alphabet and other tech giants. But for the meantime, Google seems content to leave Project Wing in the hangar.