The tech industry’s enthusiasm for building small delivery drones may be getting ahead of figuring out what to do with them.
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.
“In agriculture, I’m hoping we will see some action inside of the next year,” he said.
Over time — perhaps within five years — Dr. Kopardekar said he expected drones to make deliveries to sparsely populated areas, like rural Australia, where Google spent part of August delivering things like cattle vaccines and candy bars to a farmer.
Of course, the Federal Aviation Administration controls the skies in the United States, and it would have to sign off on any kind of drone management system. An F.A.A. spokesman said the agency expected to publish a proposed rule for small unmanned aircraft (less than 55 pounds) this year.
The F.A.A. prohibition on commercial drone use has not stopped photographers. Indeed, a video of the damage created by the recent earthquake in Napa, Calif., shot by a camera attached to a drone, was widely circulated over the Internet last week. And hobbyists do not need F.A.A. permission, so long as they don’t endanger other “aircraft or people or property.”
Google plans to spend the next year improving its drone’s ability to navigate between two points, as well as its “detect and avoid” system, the network of sensors that keeps it from running into things, according to a spokeswoman. The company expects it to be “a few years but less than a decade” before people can realistically use it.
But for drones to make it into cities, the technology of delivery could end up taking a back seat to everything else.
“There is the technology piece and then there is the public acceptance piece, and both have to evolve,” Dr. Kopardekar said. “If they are taken over by some rogue elements, how do you manage them? How do you have them safely land and take off in the presence of a grandma doing landscaping and kids playing soccer?”
This may explain why Domino’s Pizza, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., sees a long future for human delivery drivers. Last year, after one of the pizza chain’s British franchisees published a heavily shared video that showed a drone delivering pizza, there was much excitement about the prospect of pizza by drone. Sadly, that was a one-time publicity stunt.
“We did not and are not testing drone delivery,” a Domino’s spokesman, Tim McIntyre, wrote in an email. “Given the fact that these things have spinning blades, could be stolen, shot at or batted like piñatas, we didn’t think the idea would ‘fly’ here in the U.S.”
source: CONOR DOUGHERTY/ The New York Times