The head of Google's Project Wing program, Dave Vos, today told attendees at an Air Traffic Control conference in Washington, DC that he aims to launch the company's drone delivery business by 2017. That's a very aggressive timeline, given that the FAA still hasn't finalized new rules around how commercial drones would operate at all, much less how they would operate over densely populated cities. Along with the regulatory uncertainty, drones also haven't tested robust sense-and-avoid technology that would let them avoid accidents in the real world. There is also no standard yet that would allow drones to communicate with one another and with traditional aircraft, something that would be necessary before large fleets of delivery drones can safely move around our airspace.
Gur Kimchi, the head of Amazon's Prime Air program, laid out his vision for how delivery drones would operate at NASA's UTM convention back in July of this year. Civilians would get to fly only up to 200 feet, as opposed to the 400 feet that the FAA currently allows for hobbyist drones. That airspace would be shared with low-speed transit — basically drones taking off and landing to deliver their packages. The airspace 200 to 400 feet would be reserved for high-speed transit — the part of the journey where the delivery drone is traveling from the warehouse to your house. At 400 to 500 feet would be a no-fly zone, and traditional aircraft, like helicopters, would operate above that. Planes, of course, would operate at much higher levels, and drones would largely avoid flying near airports or through the paths used by traditional aircraft for takeoff and landing.
Google has similar plans in mind, although the two tech giants differ on exactly what technology should be used to communicate between aircraft and with air traffic control on the ground. Some in the industry are pushing to use the ADS-B system being rolled out to traditional aircraft. Others want to piggyback on the cellular networks already in place. Both companies recently joined the FAA task force working to create the next generation of air traffic control, along with retail giant Walmart, which has its own ambitions for a drone delivery fleet.
So far Virginia is the only state in the US to allow any kind of drone delivery. That may change over the next year or two. But Vos may also have a more global vision in mind. Autonomous drone delivery has already been tested in Australia, and autonomous drones are working on construction sites in Japan. It seems wildly ambitious at this point to imagine large fleets of delivery drones operating over US cities by 2017. But it's not crazy to think that Project Wing will have launched some kind of startup business around this technology by that time.
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