Alphabet is working on an air traffic control system before delivery drones become ubiquitous.
The team behind Project Wing, Alphabet’s drone delivery project, recently took part in some nationwide tests with NASA and the FAA to explore ways of managing large numbers of unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Partnering with Virginia Tech, Wing showed off its UTM or UAS Air Traffic Management platform. Project Wing outlined its tests in a Medium post.
During the tests, Wing demonstrated how its drone-tracking system can handle the complex flight paths of multiple drones simultaneously. Recode notes that, before drones can operate in mass numbers, a proper system that reliably tracks and manages multiple drones at the same time is crucial. Project Wing seems to have figured this part of the problem out.
The team operated multiple drones at the same time and in the same area. One pilot controlled 3 of Project Wing’s hybrid drones, a fixed-wing aircraft with rotors designed to deliver goods. Another drone type was Intel’s Aero, a specialized quadcopter for developers. A DJI Inspire flew at the same scene but conducted a search and rescue “mission” with the Aero drone.
Before, operators would have had to manually steer their drones clear of obstacles, but Wing’s UTM platform alleviates the task by automatically managing the flight paths of different types of drones. Should any conflicts arise, the system creates a clear route for each drone.
Wing is focusing its efforts on developing three core features for their drone platform. Real-time route planning, notifications to let operators know of any drone or route changes, and airspace alerts to notify operators of no-fly and safety-sensitive zones. For example, sporting events and forest fires are off limits for unmanned aerial vehicles.
The team is leveraging popular Google tech like Maps and Earth to create a detailed overview of the world, knowing where buildings, roads, and trees are so drones can stay clear. Furthermore, Google’s cloud computing would allow for Wing’s drone platform to support “millions” of routes.
Last September, Wing launched a burrito delivery program at Virginia Tech. Students could order Chipotle burritos and have them delivered by air. However, the Alphabet-backed delivery drone project has experienced some bluster. The head of Project Wing, Dave Vos, left the company last year. Wing also cut staff and axed a deal with coffee giant Starbucks in November.
Regardless, with an air traffic control system designed to operate thousands of autonomous aircraft at once, it’s likely we’ll see delivery drones in the United States sooner than later.
More Project Wing testing will be conducted in the coming months, and you can follow the progress on Alphabet’s X blog.