Government initiative gives Google the go-ahead to test delivery drones in the US

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The US government will allow Project Wing to test out its drones at one of the country's six approved test sites

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Around six weeks ago, the US laid out its first set of laws allowing businesses to fly drones for profit. There's still some way to go before this allows the kind of delivery service Amazon imagines, but a new initiative from the federal government is promising to speed things up. Among the commitments are US$35 million in funding for drone research, free pilot training for returning military veterans and, most notably, approval for Google to start testing its delivery drones in the US.

Google, or Alphabet as it's parent company is known, has kept relatively mum on its plans for autonomous drone delivery since announcing the so-called Project Wing two years ago. It had been testing its winged, vertical lift-off aircraft in Australia for two years previous to that, which were shown in a promotional video to hover above treelines and lower packages to the ground via a cable.

Late last year it emerged that the company was targeting a 2017 launch date for its drone delivery service. Project boss David Vos said Alphabet was working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the drone industry to accelerate the integration of drones into US airspace, and it now looks like these partnerships are beginning to bear fruit.

The government will now allow the Alphabet to test out its drones at one of the country's six approved test sites. Other drone companies, such as Flirtey, are already testing their drones at these sites and have been for a while, but this is the first time a big, established tech player has entered the arena.

Amazon has been pushing for approval to test its delivery drones ever since it announced its Prime Air service in 2013. It has had some small victories along the way, and did get the green light in April last year, but this came with some caveats. Its drones could fly no higher than 400 ft (122 m) and had to remain in sight of the pilot. Last week, Amazon announced plans to test its delivery drones in the UK instead.

Critically, it is on the line-of-sight point that the FAA seems ready to budge when it comes to Project Wing. According to a statement from the White House, Project Wing will be allowed to gain "full operational experience of its delivery service," which includes carrying cargo and building towards beyond the line of sight capabilities.

The FAA has launched initiatives exploring beyond-the-line-of-sight drone flight in rural areas, but this particular restriction is one of the key roadblocks for drone deliveries in built up areas. It doesn't affect companies using drones for things like real estate photography or bridge inspections so much, but makes using them for autonomous drop-offs very difficult indeed. And rules that outlaw one pilot operating more than one drone and flying above 400 ft (122 m) aren't too helpful either.

But the government says that one of the approved testing sites, in North Dakota, will now be used to carry out beyond the line of sight testing. It plans to use the facility to take drones as high as 29,000 ft (8,840 m) without a chase aircraft and use the experience gained to safely integrate heavier, faster and higher flying drones into national airspace.

Other interesting tidbits from the announcement include partnerships with Flirtey and startup Zipline, along with humanitarian organizations, to expand drone use for disaster relief and free pilot training for returning veterans to place them in jobs in the commercial drone industry. The National Science Foundation will also pump $35 million into drone research, and the Drone Racing League is helping to develop safety regulations for the drone racing industry.

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