Managing traffic in the skies

Project Wing recently took part in a series of nationwide trials conducted by NASA and the FAA to examine how to control the growing number of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in the sky. For several years, Wing and other companies are likely to have parks with thousands of UAS in the air at the same time, so we need systems that can dynamically direct UAS not only around each other, but also around manned aircraft, buildings, terrain, weather and special events.

As part of these tests, we demonstrated Project Wing’s UTM (UAS Air Traffic Management) platform at the FAA test site run by the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP). We’re no strangers to Virginia Tech, having delivered hundreds of lunches to hungry students and employees during our first autonomous delivery flights in the U.S last September.

During yesterday’s tests, we showed that our traffic management platform can manage the complex flight paths of multiple UAS at the same time. This is an important step that paves the way to a future where many UAS operators can fly safely together. It also makes it possible for a single operator — a person or organization — to fly multiple aircraft simultaneously.

Our testing featured 3 Wing aircraft, flown by a single Wing operator, performing package pickup and delivery missions at the same time and in the same area that two Intel Aero Ready to Fly Drones (operated by Intel directly over LTE) and a DJI Inspire, operated by MAAP, were conducting automated search and rescue missions. 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.

Developing our UTM platform

To enable operators — both from Project Wing and from other organizations — to safely manage fleets of drones, we’ve focused our efforts so far on developing the following core elements of our UTM platform:

  • Real-time route planning for UAS that are flying in the same area
  • Notifications to alert operators of any unexpected changes in the aircraft or route during flight
  • Airspace notifications that allow operators to avoid FAA no-fly zones and safety-sensitive areas (for example: forest fires). An airspace restriction that we simulated as part of our testing is shown below.

To build a safe and scalable UTM platform, we’re drawing on our Google heritage. Google Maps, Earth, and Street View have helped us create a detailed understanding of the world — including the buildings, roads, trees, and other terrain — that UAS need to navigate safely. In addition, Google’s cloud computing infrastructure will enable our UTM to support millions of routes, process decisions in fractions of a second, and deliver the reliability that’s critical for managing aircraft.

Next steps

In the coming months, we’ll continue to refine our UTM platform’s ability to support more simultaneous flights and navigate environments of greater complexity. We’ll continue to work with other UAS operators and manufacturers to understand more deeply what functionality we should offer, and we’re building our platform to be interoperable with other UTM systems. We’re also committed to continuing conversations with those who have an interest in knowing what UAS are flying in their community, so we can develop “good neighbor” features that keep everyone informed and comfortable.

We’re continuing to work hard to make UAS delivery a reality, transporting goods through the sky in a way that’s inexpensive, fast, and environmentally sensitive. Yesterday’s tests showed that an important foundational technology is making good progress, and we look forward to updating you on additional tests in the coming months.