Google revealed details of its drone development program, Project Wing, this week, with a delivery of chocolates to a remote Australian farmer.
The initiative - check out The Atlantic's in-depth reporting from inside the Googleplex about it - puts Google even more squarely in competition with Amazon for online retail and delivery. Google launched Google Express Shopping earlier this year, which offers same-day delivery of products from major retailers including Sam's Club and Target in select cities including New York.
Google, the world's largest Internet search engine, said it will take years of development to create a service with multiple vehicles flying multiple deliveries per day.
An early version of the drone, which Google showcased in a video on its website, has a 3-foot wingspan and is capable of flying preprogrammed routes.
"These planes have much more in common with the Google self-driving car than the remote-controlled airplanes people fly in parks on weekends," Google said on its website, referring to the company's test fleet of automobiles that use sensors and radars to navigate city streets and freeways on their own.
The drone Google showed in the video was equipped with rotors to allow for vertical takeoff and landing, as well as a fixed wing for plane-like flying. The drone flew about 40 meters above the treeline, Google said, and dropped a package of chocolate bars to a farmer in Queensland, Australia.
Google spokesman Ray Gobberg said it was too soon to discuss specific business plans for the delivery drones, but the company said on its website that self-flying vehicles could offer a cheaper, faster and less wasteful way to move goods.
Google rival Amazon.com Inc announced plans last year to use aerial delivery drones for a service called Prime Air.
DHL is also testing drone delivery in Europe. Credit: Getty Images
"Local delivery of products is the next battlefront," said Sameet Sinha, an analyst with B. Riley & Co. "Google has had its eyes on e-commerce, basically trying to get around Amazon."
While Google has been quietly developing its aerial drone project since late 2011, the technology has some significant hurdles to clear:
Drone must learn to navigate around each other
Google is figuring out how to reduce noise.
The drones must be able to drop off packages in a landing spot the size of a doorstep.
Google's Gobberg said the company has briefed the Federal Aviation Administration on the project and has been updating the agency. Gobberg said Google has done some "small scale research flights" in the United States but hoped to talk more with the agency to determine specific locations for testing.
In 2012, Congress required the FAA to establish a road map for the broader use of drones. The FAA has allowed limited use of drones in the United States for surveillance, law enforcement, atmospheric research and other applications.