Project Wing, the drone project run Alphabet's innovation lab X, hit a new milestone this week, successfully testing a drone traffic management platform that could help drone operators navigate crowded air space.
The tests, as explained in a Medium blog post, were part of a set of nationwide trials organized by NASA and the FAA to determine how to manage the thousands of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) expected to fill the skies within a few years.
Project Wing tested its UTM (UAS Air Traffic Management) platform, which is still in development, at an FAA test site run by the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP). During the testing, one drone operator flew three Project Wing aircraft, using them to perform package pickup and delivery missions. Simultaneously and in the same area, other pilots operated two Intel Aero Ready to Fly Drones, as well as a DJI Inspire, to conduct automated search and rescue missions.
The test showed that the UTM platform could automatically manage the flightpaths of all the drones involved, and that it could plan new routes for each when conflicts arose.
"This is an important step that paves the way to a future where many UAS operators can fly safely together," Project Wing's James Burgess wrote in the blog post. "It also makes it possible for a single operator -- a person or organization -- to fly multiple aircraft simultaneously."
So far, Project Wing has focused on developing three core elements of the platform: real-time route planning for drones in the same area, sending notifications to operators of any unexpected changes to the aircraft of route and sending notifications regarding no-fly zones and safety-sensitive areas.
According to the FAA, there were 42,000 commercial drones in the US at the end of 2016. By 2021, the agency says, commercial UAS fleets could range from 442,000 to as many as 1.62 million.
It's hard to predict just how big the US commercial drone market will be in the coming years, in large part because of pending regulations. The FAA isused its first rules for commercial drone use one year ago, but more rules are needed to allow for UAS deliveries. As the FAA and other agencies continue to study drone usage, the US Congress is also beginning to weigh in on the matter.