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Google sees automated flight going 'all the way' to airliners

Wednesday, May 6, 2015 - 07:09
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A "Project Wing" drone, developed by Google Inc.'s X laboratory division, flies over a farm in Queensland, Australia, in this undated handout photo released to the media on Friday, on Aug 29, 2014. The chief of Google Inc's experimental cargo-drone program wants to see automated flight go beyond pilotless planes and extend to commercial air travel.

[DALLAS] The chief of Google Inc's experimental cargo-drone program wants to see automated flight go beyond pilotless planes and extend to commercial air travel.

Just as automation has proved its worth in factories by removing tedious work from employees' hands, flying can be made safer once aircraft aren't designed around the need for humans at the controls, according to Dave Vos, who leads Google's Project Wing.

"Let's take unmanned all the way," Mr Vos said Tuesday in Atlanta during a panel discussion at the annual conference of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. "That's a fantastic future to aim for."

Transitioning airliners to robotic supervision would be a leap beyond Google's research into fields such as self-driving cars. While pilots already rely on computerised control systems and navigation aids, planes move in three dimensions, not just two as do motor vehicles. That adds complexity - and risk - to any technology that would replace humans in the cockpit.

Germany's air-traffic control agency suggested last month that the aviation industry should consider systems to let ground-based operators take over during inflight emergencies. That would be a step toward preventing crashes like the March 24 disaster in which investigators suspect the co-pilot of slamming the plane into the French Alps.

Project Wing, a part of the Google X research unit, tested a single-wing drone in Queensland, Australia, to deliver packages to farmers. The design was scrapped because it was too difficult to control, Google X chief Astro Teller said in March during the South by Southwest conference in Austin. The drone was designed to take off vertically and then fly horizontally.

Deliveries will be among the largest uses for drones, Mr Vos said, because unmanned aircraft are a good answer to congested roads and vehicle pollution.

"Going up and over really opens up a whole new world of efficiency gain and saving of energy," Mr Vos said. "It's really, really a dramatic and remarkable transformation." He didn't provide details on Google's new drone design. The US Federal Aviation Administration's recent relaxation of rules to receive exemptions to fly commercial drones is making it easier to test in the US, Mr Vos said.

"Three or four months ago we were a little bit concerned about how much progress we could make here in the US," Mr Vos said. "I really do have to say I think what we're seeing today is a significant opportunity to work here in the US with the FAA." It's up to industry to provide technology solutions to the FAA to help the regulator expand rules for drones such as flying them beyond operators' line of sight, Mr Vos said.

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