Google flouts drone regulations with NASA approved tests

Google has found a way around existing US drone legislation by conducting tests in partnership with NASA.

The Guardian reports that the search engine giant has been testing its unmanned aircraft, which weigh less than 25kg and are capable of speeds up to 100mph, over private land in rural California.

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has imposed a number of restrictions on drone use, including that a licensed pilot must be in control of the craft, which have been hampering commercial developments. However, NASA’s Certificate of Waiver or Authorisation (COA) has enabled Google to flout these regulations.

COAs were originally intended for government organisations, enabling them to experiment with drones as long as they met certain safety standards. The issuing of COAs is not usually revealed to the public and it’s unlikely that they are often approved.

Google’s latest set of trials will focus on whether mobile phone signals can be used to automatically direct low-flying unmanned aircraft. 4G and LTE radio frequencies will be transmitted to the drones, perhaps containing flight plans, over a section of privately-owned land in Merced, California.

Although the test proposals suggest that Google’s drone use is still at the experimental stage, the company is likely to have long term commercial interests in mind. Project Wing, which uses self-flying vehicles as a delivery system, and the solar powered Project Titan, which looks to provide Internet access to less developed parts of the world, are two proposals that the company is working on.

As evidence of its commercial ambitions, Google has applied for a 333 exemption from current FAA regulations – a waiver issued to commercial companies and which was granted to Amazon earlier this year.

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“Google works on big-sky, futuristic thinking, which is a NASA attribute,” said Greg McNeal, a drone expert at Pepperdine University. “Now we’re starting the transition from that big vision research to practical commercial applications.”