High-Density Drone Flights Possible Within Decade, Google Says

Low-altitude drone delivery flights and other unmanned-aircraft commerce can start in less than 10 years using existing technology, a Google Inc. executive said Wednesday.

Mobile phone networks and current aircraft-tracking devices can provide the basis for allowing small drones to fly safely over long distances, Dave Vos, chief of Google’s Project Wing, said at a conference sponsored by NASA at its Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

“We don’t need to develop new protocols,” Vos said. “We can be going in short order.”

Vos, other drone developers and government agencies are meeting at NASA’s facility in Silicon Valley to discuss how to create an air-traffic system for small, low-altitude drones, a necessity before unmanned-aircraft commerce can take off. Google’s Project Wing is competing with Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime Air to develop unmanned craft that can deliver small packages.

One key to developing such a system is following current aviation protocols, Vos said. Aircraft pilots behave like “good citizens” because they identify themselves and follow rules, even in the least-regulated airways, he said. Drone operators need to do likewise.

By using mobile-phone networks and existing technology for tracking planes, drones will be able to detect other traffic and automatically avoid danger, he said.

‘Join Us’

He urged mobile companies to cooperate with the creation of an air-traffic system for drones.

“Join us. You guys can make a ton of money,” Vos said.

Because U.S. mobile networks already exist, they will allow drones to transmit their location and stay in contact with other users, he said.

Vos also urged cooperation with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the burgeoning drone industry. The industry has at times bristled at the FAA’s slow process of creating drone rules.

At the same time, the industry needs to continue pushing for swift approvals, he said.

“Let’s push really hard,” Vos said. “Let’s not put our heads in the sand.”

A team at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is leading the government’s efforts to create a drone air-traffic system, dubbed Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management. At least 14 companies, including Google, Amazon, Verizon Communications Inc. and Harris Corp., have signed agreements with NASA to help devise the system.

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.

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