Project Wing, the delivery drone initiative under development at Google-parent Alphabet, felt another jolt of turbulence this week as more members of the team were officially cut loose.
But even as sources inside the high-profile group report ongoing challenges, the drone unit is preparing an important update to demonstrate progress that’s expected in a matter of weeks.
Business Insider has heard from multiple people that a group of employees left the team this week. And despite getting a big shout-out from Alphabet CEO Larry Page in a recent public letter, Project Wing is still not close to being ready to launch, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Our sources are calling the latest job reductions at Wing a layoff, however an X spokesperson explains that these cuts are not new but rather the final part of the reorganization that began in January, shortly after the departure of the unit’s leader Dave Vos in the fall.
Employees were informed back then that their jobs were going away and they had until mid-April to land another one elsewhere including within Google. Some of the affected employees managed to get hired into new groups, while others are no longer employed by Alphabet.
“X (and Alphabet generally) typically gives people time and support to find new roles when there are changes in teams/projects,” a spokesperson told Business Insider.
Ambitious initiatives like Project Wing, which is trying to invent a drone that can deliver packages, is by definition a risky undertaking with no guarantee of success.
Wing is part of X, formerly known as Google X, which is the company’s R&D unit working on far-out “moonshot” projects, racing against Amazon and drone makers like DJI to usher in what may one day be a massive new market, delivering everything from food to medicine straight to people’s doorsteps.
All told, since January, between layoffs and people quitting, Project Wing’s workforce has been reduced by about 10%. However, that’s not very many people, less than a dozen. We understand that Wing employs about 70 people.
The main team that has been dismantled with Project Wing’s reorganization is the one that was working business product strategy, doing things like crafting partnerships with Chipotle and Starbucks, the Wall Street Journal reported last fall and a source close to the project confirmed with Business Insider. A potential partnership with Starbucks was nixed when that happened, as Bloomberg reported at the time.
Project Wing has experienced a ton of change and turmoil since its beginnings in 2012 and has a reputation for stress and politics, more than one person familiar with the project has told us.
One guy, who was working long hours out-of-doors testing the drone, even collapsed on the job and was briefly hospitalized, sources previously told us. He was later let go as part of the team’s reorganization, people told us.
It’s not clear if Wing’s disruptions will cease now that the final employees whose jobs were cut back in January have moved on.
The turmoil stems in part because Wing is one of X’s earliest cornerstone projects, one person speculated to us. This project was created before Google reorganized itself into Alphabet and forced X to implement more stringent business analysis, hiring practices and cost controls on the projects it funded.
These days, it’s difficult to get a job at X, we understand. People can no longer get hired into X just because one of their buddies works there, a marked change from earlier days when the so-called moonshot factory was a freewheeling hive of experimental projects.
Wing’s first leader was famed MIT robotics scientist Nick Roy, who worked there during a two-year sabbatical and then went back to his tenured job at MIT. Various engineers joined Wing during those earlier years, including people from MIT who followed Roy there and left when he did, our source told us.
Roy was replaced by Vos. And Vos was pushed out by a coup of sorts when a group of employees, led by a trio of managers hired in the earlier era, went to the leader of X, Astro Teller, and made their case against Vos. (Vos did not return our request for comment.)
The initial design of Project Wing, a fixed wing aircraft that took off and landed like a helicopter, had proven to be a bust, and other internal problems plagued the team even as it shifted to a new drone design. Teller sided with the faction of protesters and Vos was out. Each of the three men were then put in charge of crucial elements of the newly designed drone and Teller himself took over as the project’s leader, we understand.
Everyone is watching
Project Wing is being watched at the highest levels of Google. X is Google cofounder Sergey Brin’s baby and he keeps tabs on many of the projects. We understand that he keeps a desk at Project Wing and talks with the team regularly.
Larry Page, the co-founder of Google who is now CEO of its parent company Alphabet, also called out Wing in his annual letter to shareholders just published on Thursday.
“Sergey is continuing to spend time working with the X moonshot factory. They have a number of efforts like Wing, which is doing drone delivery. I also can’t wait for them to launch!” he wrote.
However, the person we talked tells us that the drone still needs a lot of work as is not on the verge of becoming its own company and product. This person didn’t estimate when that would happen.
Despite the politics, Alphabet remains committed to the project and says there’s exciting news to be shared soon.
“Project Wing is moving ahead at full speed and we’re enthusiastic about the team’s progress in developing the next phase of our technology. We’re wholeheartedly committed to the moonshot of opening the skies to faster, more efficient transportation of goods, and we look forward to having updates to share in the coming weeks,” the spokesperson told us.