The Guardian newspaper reported today that Google has been testing its drone delivery program in US airspace and is planning additional testing over rural California after quietly striking a deal with NASA. Journalists at The Guardian also saw confidential documents listing the drone’s weight under 25kg and noting its speed potential is up to 100mph. They can fly as high as 400 feet up. They also listed Google’s safety plans if a drone loses contact with its operator.
Currently, the US has a ban on all commercial unmanned aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needs to grant companies special permission to fly drones over US airspace and includes numerous regulations, such as needing a licensed pilot to operate a drone.
Google’s Project Wing has been bypassing these rules for over a year under Nasa’s program for government agencies, the Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). COAs allow public organizations such as state universities, the military, police or fire departments to test unmanned aerial systems (UAS), however they do come with restrictions, including the ban of commercial operations.
COAs are rarely made public, in comparison to the waivers granted to commercial companies dubbed 333s after a section of the FAA regulations. It is well known that Amazon was granted a 333 exemption this April for research and development on its Prime Air delivery drones. Google’s deal with Nasa, however, has remained private until now. Nasa and Google haven’t yet commented on the news becoming public.
Google’s Project Wing trials will be partly used to explore whether cellphone signals can be used for automatic air traffic control by low-flying drones. Google filed documents with the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) last week, which show that the company intends to carry out tests and demonstrations on a quiet stretch of privately owned land in central California over a six month period. It will entail transmissions on the 4G and LTE radio frequencies employed by all the main U.S. cellphone companies. The FCC filing suggests that Google has a commercial interest in the upcoming experiments. It states that information to be redacted from the filing “has significant commercial value” and that “the technology under development is highly sensitive and confidential in nature”.
At Google’s X Lab, now held under the holding company Alphabet, technicians are also exploring drones and how they might communicate, navigate and operate in the future. Alphabet even has its own wireless phone company, Project Fi; and Project Loon and Project Titan are investigating how to deliver internet access to remote areas via balloon and solar-powered drone.