Google is flying test drones in private airspace in the United States. Commercial drones are mostly not allowed to fly unmanned in private airspace, but Google has managed to sidestep the law by having a special exemption. It’s called a COA (Certificate of Waiver or Authorization), and it is normally only granted to institutions like the military, police departments, and university research projects.
NASA has been working with Google/Alphabet on the Google X delivery drone testing, called “Project Wing.” Google’s test drones can fly at up to 100 miles per hour. NASA and Google have not wished to comment on what Google calls a “secret commercially valuable plan.” The delivery drones are now being tested over private land near Merced, California.
According to the Guardian, without the special exemption, a private company like Google would be compelled to obey FAA rules for drones, like having a licensed pilot controlling the craft. This month, Google applied for yet another type of exemption, called a 333 waiver.
In its request for the 333 exemption, Google claimed the drone flights are safe.
“Google’s proposed UAS operations… will not adversely affect safety, but rather will provide an equivalent or greater level of safety than that provided by… other delivery methods… using trucks/cars/motorcycles or larger manned aircraft.”
In the new experiments, Google wants to use 4G and LTE cellphone signals to send air traffic control commands to the drones.
Google did the first Project Wing drone testing in Australia, where the laws for testing unmanned drones are more lax than in the United States. This video from Google touts the results of their delivery drone test flights Down Under.
Google claims that, if the drones lose touch with their human controllers, or lose their GPS signal, they will automatically return to their home base. However, to most people, “testing” means “ironing out the bugs,” so the notion that a test drone could go dangerously astray is not far-fetched.
Questions abound about how Google’s drones will avoid hitting other drones or planes. As Kelsey Atherton wrote in Popular Science, we need to create a safe infrastructure for drone flight. Legal questions involving privacy and trespassing have to be ironed out, as well.
A recent Marketplace.org piece explained that the drone technology is moving faster than the FAA’s ability to regulate it. When the FAA was finally ready to rule on the application to test one type of Amazon delivery drone, Amazon had already started testing a newer type of drone.
Google wants to partner with other high-tech companies to develop air traffic control systems for drone flights, as the Inquisitr reported recently.
Want to see a map of the test sites in the six states where the FAA allows drone testing? This Unmanned Aircraft Systems page on the official FAA site details where you can test drones if approved, apply for an exemption to FAA rules, and even answers the question, “What can you do with your unmanned aircraft?”
While Google’s drone flights continue in a cloud of secrecy in California, many questions about safety and regulation are unanswered.