Google’s Partnership Development Manager Max Coppin occupied the first keynote speaker slot on the last day of the Global Connected Aircraft Summit in Arlington, Virginia, June 9. The topic of conversation was Google and passenger travel.
Coppin kicked off his presentation with Google’s self-driving car. That, he said, started off as a “skunk works, Google X project.” That technology incubation phase led the self-driving car to headline it’s own company, Waymo. The day before Coppin’s presentation, another Google project made headlines around advancing the concept of unmanned traffic management (UTM) for drones: Project Wing.
With the goal to build “the next generation of automated aircraft,” according to its website, Project Wing is “working toward the day when these vehicles deliver everything from consumer goods to emergency medicine – a new commerce system that opens up universal access to the sky.” This Google program is joining in the effort to build unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and UAS infrastructure. June 6, Project Wing Co-Lead James Ryan Burgess said the FAA and NASA convened tests across the UAS to provide more analysis of UTM.
“During yesterday’s tests,” Burgess wrote June 7, “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.”
The tests took place at the FAA UAS test site run by the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP). Three Project Wing aircraft, flown by one operator, performed package pickup and delivery missions, at the same time. In the same area, two Intel Aero drones, which Burgess said were operated directly over LTE, and two DJI Inspire drones, operated by MAAP, were conducting automated search and rescue missions.
“Operators have historically had to steer their aircraft away from obstacles manually,” wrote Burgess. “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.”
Project Wing’s UTM platform features real-time route planning for UAS flying in the same area; alert notifications, making operators aware of any unexpected changes in the aircraft or route while inflight; and airspace notifications to alert operators of airspace restrictions.
Burgess said that Google Maps, Google Earth and Google Street View helped develop the platform. And Google’s cloud computing infrastructure allows the platform to reliably support millions of routes and process decision quickly.
Upcoming, Burgess said Project Wing plans to continue refining the platform in the hopes of supporting more simultaneous flights and more complex environments.
“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,” Burgess wrote. “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.”
As for passenger travel, Google’s work with the Android platform could usher in more integration of personal devices with onboard inflight entertainment systems. For example, Coppin mentioned integrating a personal device with a seatback device. But, one summit attendee asked, aren’t the seatback products becoming obsolete? Might they only be around for another decade?
“I think, in a way, it’s been a bit of a missed opportunity. Maybe connecting to a seatback would help enable [the opportunity], in that it won’t be seen as this big cost,” Coppin said. He noted that he was personally a fan of the seatback screen, appreciating that he can work on his laptop while being entertained on another screen. “If that screen was a bit smarter and if it was more up to date and could be a revenue-generator rather than cost, then I think they definitely have a future. That’s where the move needs to happen.”
But as is shown by its various other projects in a variety of industries, Google is interested in leveraging its algorithms and solutions to capitalize on what it sees as the future. “How can Google help?” read one of Coppin’s slides. Here is what Google said it thinks its place is in the commercial aviation industry: