Nick Roy helms Google’s delivery-drone project

Nick Roy

Friends and colleagues were aware, at some level, that Nick Roy, a researcher in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), had been using his sabbatical to take on some sort of robotics-related role at Google.

But few people knew the full scope of his work until this past week, when Google X — the infamous idea incubator known for Google Glass, self-driving cars, and wireless hot-air balloons — unveiled a video introducing Project Wing, an ambitious delivery-drone initiative that Roy has overseen for the past two years.

At Google X’s secret Mountain View headquarters, Roy, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, led a team of several dozen autonomy experts to determine the technical feasibility of self-flying delivery vehicles.

Project Wing lined up nicely with Roy’s work as head of CSAIL’s Robust Robotics Group, which focuses in part on sensing, planning, and controlling unmanned vehicles in environments without GPS. He even brought on board a handful of key MIT collaborators, including recent graduates Abraham Bachrach PhD ’13 and Adam Bry SM ’11, whose state-estimation algorithms have drastically improved unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) navigation in indoor spaces.

“The culture at Google X is surprisingly similar to CSAIL,” Roy says. “They’re both forums for ideas, where people are thinking not just about what can be fixed today, but the big questions that, ten or twenty years down the road, we’ll look back at and wonder how they hadn’t been answered yet.”

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Meet me under the mistleDRONE? Remote control quadrocopter goes on patrol in San Francisco to encourage couples to share a Christmas kiss

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Two San Francisco artists decked out a drone with tinsel and mistletoe for an interactive exploration of Christmastime romance.

George Zisiadis and Mustafa Khan have set up shop this holiday season in Fog City’s Union Square, where happy couples are shopping, ice skating and enjoying the festive decor.

Zisiadis and Khan maneuver their glittering drone over couples’ heads, putting a decidedly modern spin on the Christmas tradition.

While Norman Rockwell may not have approved, the artists’ subjects can’t seem to get enough.

Instead of running away from the airborne mistletoe, couples’ come in droves to celebrate their yuletide cheer with a kiss.”

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Unmanned Aircraft Fly Local Skies


During this year’s Traverse City Film Festival, someone was observed flying an unmanned aerial system over Front Street crowds. Earlier in the summer, EAI, LLC of Grand Rapids spent a day shooting photography and cinematography using a low-altitude unmanned system at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme.

The presence of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in northern Michigan’s skies is on the rise – moving beyond the traditional military applications (i.e. “drones”) the general public associates with them – into civil aviation uses such as surveying of crops and acrobatic aerial footage in filmmaking.

“We wanted to capture a greater sense of destination, and what better way to do that than a couple of hundred feet above the ground,” says the resort’s eMarketing Manager Luke Mason.

It was a two-man crew, says Mason, with one controlling the camera and the other flying the quadcopter-type unmanned system. Mason says the company has a background working with defense contractors and the resort relied on it to be following all regulations around the UAS’ use.

So where exactly does the law come down on these unmanned systems, and what’s likely to come next?

The Ticker turned to Aaron Cook, director of aviation at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), for some schooling on the rules and regulations.

Cook says it comes down to whether the unmanned systems are being used for pleasure or for profit. If the UAS is used solely for recreation – going out and flying it around for fun – that is legal, explains Cook.

However, “if you take that same aircraft for pursuit of commercial activity, then it’s essentially illegal unless you are in an approved airspace,” he says. Right now, manufacturers selling to military operations or public entities doing research and development are the two ways to legally fly the systems.

Cook says there is an argument among some operators that these systems aren’t technically flying “in the airspace,” but Cook points out that hot air balloon or a helicopter could collide with them.

There is also a “fuzzy” distinction between high-end hobby level equipment and unmanned aerial systems, Cook adds.
Hobbyists and professionals alike await the Federal Aviation Administration’s official opening of U.S. airspace to commercial UAS operations for aircraft 55 pounds and under, which could happen in the next 18 months, according to Cook.

“Ideas for using UAS for commercial applications will be viable,” he says. “There will be opportunities.”

And NMC is readying students for them. It is one of only a handful of colleges in the country offering UAS operator training and is authorized to fly the unmanned systems at Yuba Airport, south of Elk Rapids.

The Grand Traverse Resort hasn’t released footage from its shoot yet, says Mason, but will be integrating it into its website and in television spots very soon. He adds that they are also exploring doing both fall and winter shoots to assist its marketing as an all-season destination.


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