Larry Page, co-founder of Google and CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet, promised in his annual shareholder’s letter that there would be exciting things happening with Project Wing this year. Project Wing is the company’s drone delivery project.
On Wednesday, the project shared some news via a post on Medium.
The update reveals that Wing took part in a set of nationwide tests conducted by NASA and the FAA alongside other drones from other manufacturers like Intel and DJI.
The Wing team was testing something that could wind up being just as important and potentially just as lucrative for Alphabet as the drones themselves: the software that will automatically manage all sorts of drones from many manufacturers as they whiz around the sky.
Project Wing, which is operated under Alphabet X, the R&D unit, has created software for managing robot drones, otherwise known as “unmanned aircraft systems” or UAS, explained Wing’s co-leader James Ryan Burgess.
“Within a few years, Wing and other companies are likely to have fleets with thousands of UAS in the air at any one time, so we’ll need systems that can dynamically route UAS not only around each other, but around manned aircraft, buildings, terrain, weather patterns and special events.
These tests featured three of Wing’s delivery drones, flown by one person; two Intel Aero Ready to Fly drones flown by another person and an automated DJI Inspire drone doing a search and rescue mission. Burgess explained:
“Operators have historically had to steer their aircraft away from obstacles manually; instead, we demonstrated yesterday that our UTM platform can automatically manage the flight paths of all these different types of UAS, planning new, clear routes for each aircraft if and when conflicts arise.”
The software makes use of Google Maps, Earth, and Street View, Burgess said.
Project Wing has had its share of troubles since it began in 2012, including the ousting of its original team leader, layoffs, the scraping of its original drone design, and complaints by some of its workers of internal political turmoil and long, harsh working conditions.
Sources close to the project have told Business Insider that the drone itself is on track to become a commercial product, but isn’t particularly ahead of rivals in the market like Amazon and DJI.
That may not matter much. The drone delivery market is incredibly nascent. Not only are multiple companies working on the technology, but various regulators are working on the rules to keep the skies safe. The market for delivery drones is projected to remain tiny through 2020, less than 1% of the total drone market, Gartner predicts.
This test hints that X may not need to wait until delivery drones themselves catch on. It could potentially launch some sort of commercial drone management software first, and be ready with a delivery drone if and when a market for that does materialise.
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