Alphabet’s Project Wing Delivery Drones to Be Tested in U.S.

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  • White House announces funding, research for unmanned flight
  • Industry also promises education campaign on drone safety

The proposed drone delivery service born in Google’s experimental labs will test its system at a U.S. site, the White House announced as part of an initiative to push research and safety measures for unmanned flight.

The U.S. National Science Foundation will spend $35 million over the next five years on unmanned flight research and the Department of Interior plans to expand its use of drone flights, according to an e-mailed release Tuesday from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The White House push comes after the Federal Aviation Administration in June finalized its first set of drone regulations allowing broad commercial flights and establishing requirements for unmanned pilot licenses.

“Honestly, the way I think about these issues, I don’t think about the problems,” the head of Project Wing, Dave Vos, said at a White House event to promote drone technology. “I think about the solutions that we can bring to bear.”

Project Wing’s test program will be the most significant drone delivery trial to date in the U.S. Inc. announced on July 26 it would begin testing its drone delivery system in the U.K.

Package Deliveries

The current regulations won’t allow the type of automated, long-distance flying that Alphabet Inc.’s X and Amazon have proposed for their package delivery systems. Project Wing will conduct experiments in a safe environment at one of the six FAA-sanctioned drone test sites to lay the groundwork for future approvals, according to the White House. X was founded by Google and is now a sister company under Alphabet.

Project Wing wants to equip its drones with tiny, inexpensive radio transponders that would identify their location to other aircraft and to controllers on the ground, Vos said. Such devices must be installed on all traditional aircraft in the U.S. by 2020.

If all drones flying near the ground were equipped with these transponders, it would permit the craft to fly in congested areas without hitting each other, he said. 

Project Wing spokeswoman Jacquelyn Miller said in an e-mail the company didn’t have anything to add to the White House announcement.

Crop Dusting

In its latest regulations, the FAA said it would allow expanding uses of drones, such as flights beyond the sight of an operator, if users could demonstrate that they were safe.

Unmanned aircraft are rapidly taking to the skies to perform a variety of tasks, including aerial inspections of refineries and helping farmers fertilize their crops, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at the event. In many cases, drones will be able to take over dangerous activities, thereby reducing risks to humans, Huerta said.

“Just last week, two people lost their lives in two different accidents involving crop dusters, exactly the type of job that a small unmanned aircraft can do with far less risk to people and to property on the ground,” Huerta said.

The agency is working on several fronts to expand drone use and expects to develop a framework for safely allowing flights over groups of people for the news media and other industries by next year.