Google Wants a Piece of Air-Traffic Control for Drones

Getting Drones Off the Ground While Keeping Skies Safe

Google Inc., the company that brought order to the Internet, has set its sights on doing the same for the flocks of commercial drones expected to someday clog the skies.

The search-engine pioneer is joining some of the biggest companies in technology, communications and aviation -- including Amazon.com Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Harris Corp. -- in trying to create an air-traffic control system to prevent mid-air collisions.

But don’t expect a big federally operated network of control towers. The government hasn’t said who will run the system or how it will operate, and is asking for ideas.

“We think the airspace side of this picture is really not a place where any one entity or any one organization can think of taking charge,” Dave Vos, who heads Google’s secretive Project Wing, told Bloomberg News in his most expansive comments on Google’s vision to date. “The idea being that it’s not ‘Google is going to go out and build a solution and everyone else has to subscribe to it.’ The idea really is anyone should be free to build a solution.”

At least 14 companies, including Google, Amazon, Verizon and Harris, have signed agreements with NASA to help devise the first air-traffic system to coordinate small, low-altitude drones, which the agency calls the Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management. More than 100 other companies and universities have also expressed interest in the project, which will be needed before commercial drones can fly long distances to deliver goods, inspect power lines and survey crops.

NASA Conference

Many will attend a NASA-sponsored conference next week on how it should work. The goal is to eventually create a fully automated robotic ballet in the sky, with computers instructing drones to move around obstructions and each other.

Whether the system will be privately or publicly run -- or even if it will be a single system -- hasn’t been decided.

To the winners will go a foothold in an emerging multibillion-dollar economy of unmanned flying machines. That’s helped attract venture capital firms like Accel Partners, Intel Corp.’s investment arm and Millennium Technology Value Partners.

Precision Hawk program director Tyler Collins. Photographer: Jason Arthurs/Bloomberg
Precision Hawk program director Tyler Collins. Photographer: Jason Arthurs/Bloomberg
Photographer: Jason Arthurs/Bloomberg

“They definitely see it as an economic opportunity and as something that they want to participate in,” Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said. “This is real magic.”

Vos said he foresees a day when thousands of drones, all within a few hundred feet of the ground, will routinely ply the skies above cities -- reducing pollution by taking traffic off the streets. That could easily dwarf traditional aircraft flights, which max out at 10,000 to 12,000 at a time over the U.S.

Computer Networks

Google called competitors and government agencies to its own conference in June to share its vision of air-traffic control. The foundation of any system must be the ability to trust that all participants will reliably identify themselves and their locations, Vos said. The airspace must be open to any drones willing to follow the rules.

Networks of computers on the ground and in the air will set routes that avoid mid-air collisions. Humans will still be in charge, but unlike the current air-traffic system, controllers must rely on computers to make the split-second decisions necessary to keep drone traffic flowing and safe, he said.

Vos envisions a decentralized system with multiple private operators, most likely overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Amazon has been tight-lipped about what it wants in a drone air-traffic system. Gur Kimchi, vice president of the company’s drone delivery division, Amazon Prime Air, issued a statement saying everyone in the industry “must work together.” Kimchi, who will deliver a key-note speech on July 28 at NASA’s conference, said he would discuss more details then.

Recent Demonstration

PrecisionHawk, a Raleigh, North Carolina, drone company with about 100 employees, began developing its own drone traffic control system because the large agriculture and oil companies it flies for wanted something to keep tabs on unmanned flights. “Our clients need it,” Tyler Collins, the program’s director, said.

In a recent demonstration over a North Carolina cattle farm, Collins and his team intentionally steered a quad-copter drone toward an imagined crop duster at work on an adjacent farm, the kind of hazardous scenario PrecisionHawk employees have seen in the real world.

A no-fly zone alert appears on an operator's smartwatch
A no-fly zone alert appears on an operator's smartwatch
Photographer: Jason Arthurs/Bloomberg

Within seconds an alert popped up on the operator’s smartwatch: “WARNING, nearing no-fly zone.” When the operator ignored the warning, an autopilot took over and flew the whirring machine back to safety.

PrecisionHawk’s system can automatically block its drones from flying into danger, such as around airports and other aircraft. And it makes a drone’s real-time flight track available so others can stay away.

Skydio, Airware

Skydio Inc., a Menlo Park, California, company founded a year ago, is developing arrays of tiny cameras mounted on drones and linked to computer chips that automatically guide them around trees, power lines and other obstructions, Chief Executive Officer Adam Bry said. San Francisco-based Airware and DroneDeploy are creating computer networks capable of showing where drones are operating.

After putting out word last year that NASA wanted help on its small-drone control system, 126 companies expressed interest, said NASA’s Parimal Kopardekar, the project manager.

“We think through collaboration we can collectively decide on the right requirements faster,” he said.

Kopardekar envisions a tiered system of tighter and tighter controls as drone traffic ramps up. If a drone pilot wants to fly over a remote farm, all he or she might need to do is file a notice to a centralized computer system. As unmanned flights become denser, the cloud-based system would need to track drones to ensure they wouldn’t collide, just as radar follows traditional aircraft now, he said.

Drone Detection

He’s also contemplating drone-detection systems to ensure that stealth unmanned aircraft (such as the one that landed on the White House lawn Jan. 26) can be tracked. Kopardekar envisions turning over the design to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Just how all this will happen isn’t yet known, let alone who will pay for it or operate it. That has left a lot of room for jockeying among the players, according to Gary Church, president of Aviation Management Associates Inc., who has consulted on drone-related projects for a decade.

Will drones be tracked by the same equipment the FAA has ordered traditional aircraft to install by 2020, known as ADS-B? If so, Harris, which built FAA’s ADS-B tracking system and is also working with NASA, stands to benefit.

Or will the nation’s cellular network be adapted for drone monitoring? That may be a boon for Verizon and other mobile phone companies.

Will fiercely independent recreational fliers, who are now exempt from most drone regulations, be required to adhere to new rules? How will the system handle rogue operators who don’t cooperate?

“It’s kind of a big problem statement, but we think it’s quite tractable,” Vos said of the challenge. As long as “we force ourselves to think collaboratively, we’re pretty convinced that the answers come out pretty clearly.”

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