from New York Times
On Thursday, with much fanfare, Google revealed Project Wing, an experimental program out of the company’s long-term projects division, called Google X. In a video, Google showed a buzzing aircraft — half plane, half helicopter — using a 200-foot fishing line to drop dog treats to a farmer in Queensland, Australia.
But for all the Tomorrowland wonder of a potential delivery-by-drone service, plenty of issues will be tricky to solve. Drone technology has not been thoroughly tested in populated areas, and commercial use of drones is not allowed in the United States. Even if it were, it is not clear that companies could make a profit using advanced, helicopterlike vehicles to deliver dog food, toothpaste or whatever else a modern family might need.
Still, dozens of companies have experimented with using drones for tasks like crop dusting and monitoring breaks in railroad tracks and oil pipelines. Late last year, Amazon revealed its own experimental delivery service, Prime Air, which it says could one day deliver packages to customers within a half-hour.
And researchers at NASA are working on ways to manage that menagerie of low-flying aircraft. At NASA’s Moffett Field, about four miles from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., the agency has been developing a drone traffic management program that would in effect be a separate air traffic control system for things that fly low to the ground — around 400 to 500 feet for most drones.
Much like the air traffic control system for conventional aircraft, the program would monitor the skies for weather and traffic. Wind is a particular hazard, because drones weigh so little compared with regular planes.
The system would also make sure the drones do not run into buildings, news helicopters or other lower-flying objects — a more challenging task than for an airplane flying at 30,000 feet. There would also be no-fly zones, such as anywhere near a major airport.
“One at a time you can make them work and keep them safe,” said Parimal H. Kopardekar, a NASA principal investigator who is developing and managing that program. “But when you have a number of them in operation in the same airspace, there is no infrastructure to support it.”
Unlike the typical image of an air traffic control center — a dark room full of people wearing headphones and staring at radar screens — NASA’s system, like the drones themselves, would dispense with the people and use computers and algorithms to figure out where they can and cannot fly.
The commercial viability of delivery drones would depend heavily on two things: how many people live in the area and how much people are willing to pay for the service.
Dr. Kopardekar said he expected the first commercial applications to be in agriculture and “asset monitoring,” like keeping an eye on crops or remote oil pipelines.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com