To Test its Drone Fleet, Google Uses a Sneaky Legal Loophole

By Bryan Lufkin on at

Google has been working with NASA to test delivery drones in private US airspace, according to documents reviewed by the Guardian. While laws mostly prohibit commercial drones from such activity, NASA offers Google a convenient loophole.

The drone experiments in question are part of the Google X delivery drone research programme codenamed Project Wing. Operation of commercial unmanned aerial vehicles is currently a no-no in the US, unless you have a so-called 333 exemption. This is how Amazon is currently testing its own delivery drones.

Google only applied for a 333 waver last week, but it turns out it’s been testing drones for over a year using another exemption: NASA’s Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). This waiver is usually granted to the military, universities, or fire and police departments for research purposes. With a COA these government agencies can carry out safety-standard-abiding UAV experiments. As the Guardian reports, the COAs are rarely granted to companies.

While NASA’s COA allows Google to legally test its flying delivery robots, Google’s also trying for a 333 for further commercial drone R&D, reportedly. Google declined to give a new on-the-record statement to Gizmodo.

The documents reviewed by the Guardian also provide some specs for the drones. Apparently, they can hit 100 miles per hour and weigh 25 kilos. As for how they fly, we learn that if a drone’s remote pilot loses control, the UAV’s GPS automatically returns to its home base.

This isn’t the first time Google has teamed up with NASA. The agency is currently sharing its massive blimp hangars with Google, and NASA has also partnered with the company to make AI-improving supercomputers.

It seems that the rising tide of private-public partnerships applies to far more than the new space race: they’re the future of airspace too. [The Guardian]