Google and other businesses could start using small commercial drones to deliver products in urban areas starting as early as next year.
That's according to David Vos, head of Project Wing at Google X, the semi-secret lab that houses several of the company's moonshot projects.
CNN on Jan. 11 quoted Vos at an industry event in Washington as saying that enough unoccupied airspace is available in the U.S. currently to enable the safe operation of drones in the relatively short term. If the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and industry can agree on regulations governing the safe operation of commercial drones in U.S. airspace, drone delivery could become a reality within the next one to three years, Vos is reported to have said.
According to the Google executive, commercial drones will operate in a manner safer even than general aviation and will be operated with minimal disturbance and noise levels.
Google is one of a rapidly growing number of companies planning to use drone aircraft for product deliveries. Other large companies with similar plans include Amazon, with its Prime Air service for delivering products in 30 minutes or less, and Walmart, which wants to use the small, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for home delivery and curbside pickup. Both companies like Google are currently in the midst of testing their drone delivery plans.
How soon such plans will become a reality depends entirely on the FAA, which has been tasked to develop rules for the safe operation of drones in U.S. airspace under the Obama Administration's FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The FAA is currently drafting those rules, which some expect will become available later this year.
In the meantime, Google and several other companies, including Amazon and Verizon, are working with NASA to develop a drone air traffic control system for ensuring the safe operation of UAVs in commercial airspace. More than 100 other organizations, including several universities, also are contributing to the effort, which is considered crucial to enabling commercial drone operations in the United States.
The FAA itself in December began a drone registration program that requires people to register online any drone that weighs between 0.55 and 55 pounds. The operators of drones that are heavier than 55 pounds or those who want to use it for commercial purposes are required to go through the FAA's more rigorous Aircraft Registry process.
A lot of the attention around drones has focused on how companies like Google and Amazon plan on using them for product delivery. However, scores of enterprises in different industries have begun using UAVs for special applications by taking advantage of an FAA exemption process for drones that operate at 200 feet or less.
As of last summer, the FAA had already issued more than 1,000 such exemptions to companies seeking to use drones for applications like real estate photography, motion picture filming and agriculture. Among others planning similar uses are utility companies that want to use drones for inspecting power lines and distribution facilities, and rail companies that want to use them for inspecting bridges and other railroad infrastructure.