The White House says it’s taking steps to speed up the development of civil and commercial applications for drones – including the experimental deployment of Google’s Project Wing, a delivery service that could rival what Amazon has in mind.
Today’s announcement comes a week after Amazon indicated that it would be shifting the focus of its own drone delivery tests from the United States to Britain. Amazon Prime Air may benefit indirectly from the Project Wing experiment as well – but if there is any benefit, Project Wing will get it first.
The Project Wing study is just one of more than a dozen public-private initiatives announced today to coincide with a workshop on drones and the future of aviation, organized by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Another initiative opens the way for Bloodworks Northwest to deliver blood, medicine and medical products to remote communities in the San Juan Islands via drones.
The White House said the National Science Foundation would set aside $35 million in funding over the next five years for research into how drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems, can be used to inspect infrastructure and farm fields, monitor the weather and respond to disasters.
“Aviation is all about ingenuity,” Michael Huerta, who heads the Federal Aviation Administration, said during today’s workshop. “It’s always how we can harness innovation and put it to great use for society.”
Project Wing has been in the works for years under the aegis of X, a “moonshot factory” that started out under Google’s wing and is now a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s holding company. The Project Wing team has been developing drones that could be used for delivery purposes. Today the White House said the project will conduct an operational research study at one of the six sites approved by the FAA for drone testing. Those sites are located in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia.
The tests would include drone flights with external cargo loads, and build up toward flights beyond the operator’s line of sight, the White House said. Project Wing would also start to develop and deploy an open-interface air traffic control system for small drones flying beneath 400 feet in altitude.
If the FAA gives the go-ahead, beyond-line-of-sight flights will be conducted at North Dakota’s Grand Sky business and aviation park, the White House said. Amazon, meanwhile, will be working with the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority to conduct beyond-line-of-sight flights in rural and suburban areas of Britain.
Beyond-line-of-sight operation, sensing and avoiding obstacles, airspace management and drone fleet operations are among the key requirements for drone deliveries, whether by Amazon Prime Air, Project Wing or other services. Even the U.S. Postal Service is thinking about getting involved in the drone delivery business, the White House said.
Last month the FAA issued a set of regulations governing the operation of small commercial drones, but those rules limited flights to an operator’s visual line of sight, prohibited flights over people who aren’t involved in the drone operation, and said no pilot could operate more than one drone at a time. Such limitations would stymie drone delivery systems; however, the FAA left the door open for waivers.
The FAA already has solicited recommendations for drone overflights, and the proposed rules for flying drones over people are due to be published for public comment by this winter. The results from Project Wing’s experiment and other drone tests are likely to be factored into the development of regulations and systems that would eventually allow drones to fly autonomously, far beyond their points of origin.
Here are some of the other initiatives announced today:
- The U.S. Interior Department plans to expand its use of drones for search-and-rescue operations and to augment piloted aircraft missions.
- New York’s Empire State Development is making an initial investment of $5 million to create a hub for drone innovation and manufacturing in upstate New York.
- Flirtey, a drone delivery startup, is partnering with the nonprofit International Medical Corps to look into humanitarian applications for drone delivery technology.
- The Commercial Drone Alliance will lead a broad effort to educate the public about integrating drones into the national airspace system.
- DroneBase and Drones & Good are partnering to provide free drone pilot training to veterans.
- The Drone Racing League is releasing best-practice guidelines for drone competitions.