Is it a bird, a plane, a UFO? According to a new agreement between Google and NASA, unmanned flying objects of all sorts may now buzz around NASA Ames Research Center.
In June, NASA Ames management signed an agreement allowing Google to test autonomous, unmanned vehicles at NASA Ames, which not only allows Google's self-driving cars to be tested at Ames, but also aircraft. It coincides with news last week that Google has been developing drone technology over the last two years with its "Project Wing" a wing-shaped drone that is able to fly across a city to deliver packages, called an effort to compete with Amazon's development of drones to help deliver goods purchased online.
Google posted a YouTube video introducing Project Wing on Aug. 28. The drone is shown delivering dog treats to a farmer in Australia, where rules for drones are more lax. The wing-shaped drone glides before tilting to hover nose-up high above ground, when a package comes off its belly and makes a soft landing at the end of a tether.
NASA shares Google's enthusiasm for unmanned aircraft, calling it "an exciting new activity" in the agreement. The agreement says a long list of aircraft types will be accommodated by NASA Ames -- without pilots. It reads like the to-do list of the billionaires behind Google's Project X, including "air taxis" and "hypersonic jets" and even "personal vehicles" and "aircraft share," meaning that perhaps there will be a Zipcar-like service for self-flying cars developed by Google.
NASA says the goal of the collaboration with Google is to "increase efficiency, mobility, and affordability, and promote diversity of airspace use." The key to this vision is increasingly driver-less, robotic aircraft. The agreement calls it "higher levels of automation and autonomy."
"The goal of UTM (a NASA program called Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management) is to identify and develop the maximum possible use of automation to address the needs to future air transportation and airspace operations," the agreement says. "All vehicle types and mixes of operations shall be accommodated."
Google has also bought a company called Titan Aerospace that has built a solar-powered drone capable of flying at high altitude for three years straight. It could be used to beam a wireless Internet network down to Earth or take high resolution images of the planet probably not a comforting thought to those who find Google's access to so much personal information already is a little creepy.
The NASA Ames' public affairs office did not respond to requests for comments to the story, and a Google spokesperson was not able to provide comments by the Voice's press deadline on Wednesday.