Both Alphabet and Amazon have committed to developing autonomous drones that can deliver packages with minimal human oversight. Unfortunately for the tech giants, the Federal Aviation Administration does not currently allow drones in the US to operate without a human pilot or beyond that pilot's line of sight. Until today, most research, development, and testing on these projects had taken place overseas. But, as part of a White House initiative aimed at bolstering the drone industry, Alphabet's Project Wing has announced that it will begin testing its delivery drones, or UAVs, at one of the six FAA-approved test sites here in the US.
According to the White House press release:
Data gathered will be shared with government partners to help regulators answer critical safety and human factors questions for UAV cargo delivery operations. Project Wing is planning for the testing to include operations with external cargo loads and to build towards beyond line of sight (BLOS) capabilities. The company will also begin to develop and deploy an open-interface, airspace management solution for safe low-altitude small UAS (sUAS) operations using existing low cost, scalable communication and information technologies. The work, which will focus on encouraging good citizenship in operation and collaboration between and across industry and government, will help ensure safe integration of sUAS in the layer of airspace under 400 feet.
Development of a next generation air traffic control system is critical to enabling the kind of large scale drone fleets over crowded urban areas that Amazon and Alphabet want to build. And in the long run, the operator of those networks may reap as much financial benefit from managing that infrastructure — a cloud of connected devices in the sky — as it does from acting as the merchant or delivery company.
Despite the ongoing advances in computer vision and artificial intelligence, and the growing support for the drone industry from both private industry and public policy, it's unlikely that delivery drones will become a reality in major cities anytime in the next year or two. In more rural areas, however, the delivery of critical services and supplies, for example blood and medicine, will soon be a reality, with operations announced this morning in Washington, Nevada, and Maryland.