Internet-age companies are forging ahead with plans to incorporate small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—better known as drones—in their commercial operations. On August 28, Internet search engine and services company Google revealed that it is developing a drone delivery service and has already tested a prototype aircraft. Last month, on-line retailer Amazon formally petitioned the FAA for an exemption to test its own delivery service over company-owned property near Seattle.
“Self-flying vehicles could open up entirely new approaches to moving things around, including options that are faster, cheaper, less wasteful and more environmentally sensitive than the way we do things today,” Google said in a statement. “We have been exploring this area for the last couple of years, and we’ve now hired a new team lead to take us from research to product.”
The company’s Google X research laboratory in Mountain View, Calif., started exploring the development of a delivery service in late 2011, an effort it calls Project Wing. On August 13, a Google team began a series of test flights using a prototype flying wing at a farm outside of Warwick, Australia, about 100 miles southwest of Brisbane. Assisted by Unmanned Systems Australia, the team conducted more than 30 flights, delivering items including chocolate bars, a first aid kit, a water bottle and cattle vaccine.
The flying wing lifts off vertically and is powered by four propellers. It measures 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) wide by 0.8 meters (2.6 feet) tall, according to information Google provided. The Project Wing team lead is technology entrepreneur David Vos, who co-founded the former Athena Technologies, of Warrenton, Va., a developer of lightweight navigation and flight-control systems for unmanned aircraft. Among its products, the company supplied the GS-211e flight-control computer for the RQ-7 Shadow that AAI Corp., manufactured for the U.S. Army. Rockwell Collins acquired Athena Technologies in 2008. Vos then worked for the avionics manufacturer as senior director of control technologies until 2012.
In April, Google confirmed that it had acquired Titan Aerospace of Moriarty, N.M., developer of the high-flying, solar-powered Solara UAS, which in Google’s view could serve as a node to provide Internet connectivity from the stratosphere.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos revealed his company’s planned “Prime Air” package delivery service using octocopters last December during the CBS news program 60 Minutes. On July 9, Amazon petitioned the FAA for an exemption to regulations prohibiting the commercial use of unmanned aircraft—an option allowed under Section 333 of the 2012 FAA reauthorization act. In the petition, the company said that it is “incredibly passionate” about the delivery service under development at its Seattle research laboratory, and in the previous five months had tested “eighth- and ninth-generation aerial vehicles.”
Amazon is also ramping up its Washington, D.C., lobbying effort for drones. At a meeting of the UAS special committee of standards organization RTCA on August 28, Ben Gielow, general counsel with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said he is leaving the trade group to work for Amazon Prime Air. Gielow has been one of AUVSI’s most prominent executives after CEO Michael Toscano.