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Google Project Wing taps drones for disaster relief, package delivery

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Though militarized drones strike terror into the hearts of those on the ground below, Google wants its autonomous aircraft to bring hope as the micro air vehicles deliver aid to those affected by disasters.

Commercial drones still haven't been cleared to soar through the skies of the U.S., though Amazon and other large companies are already moving forward with large-scale drone operations. And while big business lobbies the Federal Aviation Administration to green light the aircraft, Google's humanitarian intentions for the drones could be one of the more compelling uses of the aircraft that nudge regulators to clear the unmanned aircraft for take off.

Known as Project Wing, Google's drone program is a part of the search engine company's far-thinking Google X division that tackles some of Google's more radical research and development programs and is where Google Glass, the contact lens that will help track blood glucose levels for diabetics, and the company's self-driving cars got their start.

Project Wing has been conducting test flights in Queensland, Australia, where policies on drone testing are more relaxed. The drones have delivered goods to remote ranches and novelty items to individuals in residential areas.

While Google's drones have been shuttling candy bars and dog treats during tests, they could one day deliver life-sustaining aid to individuals in a town with roads blocked by rubble or drop supplies to refuges stationed at some of the most treacherous terrain on the planet.

"Even just a few of these, being able to shuttle nearly continuously, could service a very large number of people in an emergency situation," said Astro Teller, head of Google X.

To monetize the two-year-old Project Wing, Google may step try to establish itself in territory in which the United States' largest online retailer is settling.

With the might of drones behind it, Amazon's same-day delivery service will make for serious competition and the retailer has been stepping up its efforts to make that happen. But Google's efforts shouldn't be overlooked, according to Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who studies robotics and privacy.

"I don't know that Google is much better positioned than Amazon or anyone else in terms of technology, but the company has a track record of being influential in terms of policy," said Calo.

But for now, Google has the capital to support Project Wing without the need to make money off the drone program. Dave Voss, incoming head of Project Wing, sees even small-scale humanitarian use of drones as a potentially powerful force.

"When you have a tool like this you can really allow the operators of those emergency services to add an entirely new dimension to the set of tools and solutions that they can think of," said Voss.

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