Google Inc., the company that brought order to the Internet, has set its sights on doing the same for the flocks of commercial drones expected to someday clog the skies.
The search-engine pioneer is joining some of the biggest companies in technology, communications and aviation — including Amazon.com Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Harris Corp. — in trying to create an air-traffic control system to prevent mid-air collisions.
But don’t expect a big federally operated network of control towers. The government hasn’t said who will run the system or how it will operate, and is asking for ideas.
“We think the airspace side of this picture is really not a place where any one entity or any one organization can think of taking charge,” Dave Vos, who heads Google’s secretive Project Wing, told Bloomberg News in his most expansive comments on Google’s vision to date. “The idea being that it’s not ‘Google is going to go out and build a solution and everyone else has to subscribe to it.’ The idea really is anyone should be free to build a solution.”
At least 14 companies, including Google, Amazon, Verizon and Harris, have signed agreements with NASA to help devise the first air-traffic system to coordinate small, low-altitude drones, which the agency calls the Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management. More than 100 other companies and universities have also expressed interest in the project, which will be needed before commercial drones can fly long distances to deliver goods, inspect power lines and survey crops.
Many will attend a NASA-sponsored conference next week on how it should work. The goal is to eventually create a fully automated robotic ballet in the sky, with computers instructing drones to move around obstructions and each other.
Whether the system will be privately or publicly run — or even if it will be a single system — hasn’t been decided.
To the winners will go a foothold in an emerging multibillion-dollar economy of unmanned flying machines. That’s helped attract venture capital firms like Accel Partners, Intel Corp.’s investment arm and Millennium Technology Value Partners.
“They definitely see it as an economic opportunity and as something that they want to participate in,” Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said. “This is real magic.”
Vos said he foresees a day when thousands of drones, all within a few hundred feet of the ground, will routinely ply the skies above cities — reducing pollution by taking traffic off the streets. That could easily dwarf traditional aircraft flights, which max out at 10,000 to 12,000 at a time over the U.S.
Google called competitors and government agencies to its own conference in June to share its vision of air-traffic control. The foundation of any system must be the ability to trust that all participants will reliably identify themselves and their locations, Vos said. The airspace must be open to any drones willing to follow the rules.
Networks of computers on the ground and in the air will set routes that avoid mid-air collisions. Humans will still be in charge, but unlike the current air-traffic system, controllers must rely on computers to make the split-second decisions necessary to keep drone traffic flowing and safe, he said.
Vos envisions a decentralized system with multiple private operators, most likely overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Amazon has been tight-lipped about what it wants in a drone air-traffic system. Gur Kimchi, vice president of the company’s drone delivery division, Amazon Prime Air, issued a statement saying everyone in the industry “must work together.” Kimchi, who will deliver a key-note speech on July 28 at NASA’s conference, said he would discuss more details then.