Google Sees Automated Flight Going ‘All the Way’ to Airlines

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Google X Chief Astro Teller
Google X chief Astro Teller said Project Wing tested a single-wing drone to deliver packages to farmers in Queensland, Australia, but the design was scrapped because it was too difficult to control. Photographer: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

The chief of Google Inc.’s experimental cargo-drone program wants to see automated flight go beyond pilotless planes and extend to commercial air travel.

Just as automation has proved its worth in factories by removing tedious work from employees’ hands, flying can be made safer once aircraft aren’t designed around the need for humans at the controls, according to Dave Vos, who leads Google’s Project Wing.

“Let’s take unmanned all the way,” Vos said Tuesday in Atlanta during a panel discussion at the annual conference of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “That’s a fantastic future to aim for.”

Transitioning airliners to robotic supervision would be a leap beyond Google’s research into fields such as self-driving cars. While pilots already rely on computerized control systems and navigation aids, planes move in three dimensions, not just two as do motor vehicles. That adds complexity -- and risk -- to any technology that would replace humans in the cockpit.

Vos, a former Rockwell Collins Inc. executive and holder of a doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, didn’t give a timeline for his vision beyond saying he expects to see such aircraft in his lifetime.

Germany’s air-traffic control agency suggested last month that the aviation industry should consider systems to let ground-based operators take over during inflight emergencies. That would be a step toward preventing crashes like the March 24 disaster in which investigators suspect the co-pilot of slamming the plane into the French Alps.

Project Wing

Project Wing, a part of the Google X research unit, tested a single-wing drone in Queensland, Australia, to deliver packages to farmers. The design was scrapped because it was too difficult to control, Google X chief Astro Teller said in March during the South by Southwest conference in Austin. The drone was designed to take off vertically and then fly horizontally.

Deliveries will be among the largest uses for drones, Vos said, because unmanned aircraft are a good answer to congested roads and vehicle pollution.

“Going up and over really opens up a whole new world of efficiency gain and saving of energy,” Vos said. “It’s really, really a dramatic and remarkable transformation.”

He didn’t provide details on Google’s new drone design. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s recent relaxation of rules to receive exemptions to fly commercial drones is making it easier to test in the U.S., Vos said.

U.S. Progress

“Three or four months ago we were a little bit concerned about how much progress we could make here in the U.S.,” Vos said. “What we’re seeing today is a significant opportunity to work here in the U.S. with the FAA.”

Commercial drones may make as many as 1 million flights a day in the U.S. in two decades, according to a study by the Consumer Electronics Association trade group. The market for such models may be $200 million during the next three years as the FAA adopts permanent rules, rising to $1 billion once drones can fly beyond operators’ line of sight, the group said.

It’s up to industry to provide technology solutions so the FAA can expand rules for long-distance drone flights, Vos said. Today’s safety systems for drone emergencies such as an operator’s loss of signal are “equal or better” to those on manned aircraft, he said.

Google is now working on a miniature, “ultra-low-cost” transmitter to track drones as a step toward autonomous flight, Vos said. The FAA has mandated this type of transmitter, known as ADS-B, for all piloted aircraft by 2020.

Drone flights beyond the sight of operators, which aren’t contemplated in the FAA’s proposed rules for commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms), will happen in a couple of years, sooner than some predictions in the industry, Vos said. The FAA is open to such changes as long as safety is maintained, he said.

“It’s a matter of building momentum,” he said. “With that momentum, with that pressure, with that consumer enthusiasm, we can make it happen.”

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