Google is testing its Project Wing unmanned aircrafts, otherwise known as drones, over United States soil with quiet approval by NASA, according to a new report by the Guardian. The technology giant would otherwise have to receive a 333 exemption by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a waiver issued to commercial companies testing the use of UASs (unmanned aircrafts), as the commercial operation of these aircrafts is banned in the United States.
NASA currently has the ability to experiment with UASs through its Certificate of Waiver or Authorization, issued by the FAA, which grants public organizations the ability to test them out so long as the public entity exclusively owns or operates the drone, and that they’re not used for commercial purposes.
The public space exploration organization, through the use of Space Act Agreements which allow it to empower entities that it believes can help it fulfill its objectives, has been issuing “certificates of approvals to operate” UASs to Google, according to one of these agreements obtained by the Guardian. The company has been using stretches of private land to fly the drones, and will soon begin using a wide stretch of land in Merced, California for further experimentation.
The report goes on to say that recent trials of Project Wing’s drones include seeing whether on not cellular signals are reliable enough for communication with these drones at low-flying levels for communicating back to an “automatic air traffic control.” They include transmissions on the 4G (HSPA+) and LTE radio frequencies, but filings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) do not name any carriers Google may be working with to test these frequencies. Google operates its own commercial carrier, called Project Fi, which piggybacks off Sprint and T-Mobile’s networks. Cellular frequency is a scarce resource largely owned by private entities and regulated by the FCC, as cell towers too close to one another can cause interference and connectivity issues.
And just in case you had any doubt that Google intends to eventually use these drones for commercial purposes like package delivery to US households, the company in its FCC filings requested that certain details be redacted from public eyes:
The FCC filing also suggests that Google has a direct commercial interest in the upcoming tests. In requesting details to be redacted from the document, Google notes: “The information requested to be kept confidential has significant commercial value. Google’s tests/experiments and proprietary wireless applications using particular radio frequency equipment represent a ‘secret commercially valuable plan’.”
The company goes on to say: “The technology under development is highly sensitive and confidential in nature. The release of such information would provide valuable insight into Google’s technology innovations and potential business plans and strategies.”
Although Google says its tests under NASA’s approval are legal, it has still filed for a 333 exemption, which Amazon in particular already has for the testing of its Prime Air delivery service. According to the FAA exemption request found by the Guardian, Google’s drones “weigh less than 25kg (55lb), using multiple electric engines to fly at up to 100 mph and as high as 120 meters (400 ft).” If a drone loses contact to GPS or a communications with an operator on the ground, it will automatically return to base and land immediately. The FAA’s current regulations on the use of drones say that they must be controlled by a ground operator and be within the field of sight of the operator, making the use of drones for commercial purposes nearly impossible.