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Drone makers face a maze of obstacles

A drone lowered a package to the ground in Queensland, Australia, as part of Google’s test program last week.Google Via AFP/Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO — The tech industry’s enthusiasm for building small delivery drones may be getting ahead of figuring out what to do with them.

On Thursday, with much fanfare, Google Inc. revealed Project Wing, an experimental program out of the company’s long-term projects division, called Google X. In a video, Google showed a buzzing aircraft — half plane, half helicopter — using a 200-foot fishing line to drop dog treats to a farmer in Queensland, Australia.

But for all the futuristic wonder of a potential delivery-by-drone service, plenty of issues will be tricky to solve.

Drone technology has not been thoroughly tested in populated areas, and commercial use of drones is not allowed in the United States. Even if it were, it is not clear that companies could make a profit using advanced, helicopter-like vehicles to deliver dog food, toothpaste, or whatever else a modern family might need.


Still, dozens of companies have experimented with using drones for such tasks as crop dusting and monitoring breaks in railroad tracks and oil pipelines. Late last year, revealed its own experimental delivery service, Prime Air, which it says could one day deliver packages to customers within a half-hour.

And researchers at NASA are working on ways to manage that menagerie of low-flying aircraft. At NASA’s Moffett Field, about four miles from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., the agency has been developing a drone traffic management program that would in effect be a separate air traffic control system for objects that fly low to the ground — around 400 to 500 feet for most drones.

Much like the air traffic control system for conventional aircraft, the program would monitor the skies for weather and traffic. Wind is a particular hazard because drones weigh so little, compared with regular planes.

The system would also make sure the drones do not run into buildings, news helicopters, or other lower-flying objects — a more challenging task than for an airplane flying at 30,000 feet.


There would also be no-fly zones, such as anywhere near a major airport.

“One at a time you can make them work and keep them safe,” said Parimal H. Kopardekar, a NASA principal investigator who is developing and managing that program. “But when you have a number of them in operation in the same airspace, there is no infrastructure to support it.”

NASA’s system, like the drones themselves, would dispense with the people and use computers and algorithms to figure out where they can fly.

The commercial viability of delivery drones would depend heavily on two things: how many people live in the area and how much people are willing to pay for the service.

Kopardekar said he expected the first commercial applications to be in agriculture and “asset monitoring,” like keeping an eye on crops or remote oil pipelines. “In agriculture, I’m hoping we will see some action inside of the next year,” he said.

Over time, perhaps within five years, Kopardekar expects drones to make deliveries to sparsely populated areas like rural Australia, where Google spent part of August delivering things, including cattle vaccines and candy bars.

The Federal Aviation Administration said it would have to sign off on any kind of management system. An FAA spokesman said the agency expects to publish a proposed rule for drones this year.