Various companies have in recent years been working to develop underlying air traffic technologies intended to support the expected rapid expansion of the commercial unmanned urban air mobility (UAM) industry.
Those players include Google sister company Wing, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, which is now calling attention to the “InterUSS Platform”, a data-transfer and unmanned aircraft management system it helped develop.
The technology is intended to manage operation of all types of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), including package-delivery drones and passenger-carrying air taxis, says Reinaldo Negron, head of unmanned air traffic management at Wing.
The InterUSS platform allows data sharing between unmanned service providers, supporting “interoperable systems at scale,” Negron says.
The air taxi concept has gained particular attention in recent years as small companies and massive aerospace providers rolled out UAM designs and demonstrators. Several companies have also tested package delivery by drone.
“The InterUSS platform enables someone who is providing a service in one area to know who else they need to collaborate with,” says Negron. “It helps you know who to talk to and when to talk to them, and also makes sure you have the data you need from them.”
The UAM industry needs such a system to enable a growth rate that could hit 200% annually, says Negron.
Other InterUSS partners include Uber, which through division Uber Elevate has been developing an air taxi service, AirMap, a California-based digital airspace and automation company, and Switzerland’s civil aviation regulator.
Open-source software organisation Linux Foundation hosts the InterUSS platform.
Being “open source” means the broad unmanned-aircraft community can modify and improve the InterUSS platform. That approach can ensure air traffic management technology keeps pace with the expected rapid growth of the unmanned sector, says Negron.
The drone industry is “moving away from proprietary solutions and more to collaboration”, he adds.
Based in California, Wing began life in 2012 as an innovation project within “X”, the Google division that seeks to develop “moonshot” technologies. After proving the viability of its concept, Wing became a district subsidiary of Alphabet in 2018.
The Google division has already developed drone designs and built prototypes, and in the last six years has completed tens of thousands of test drone flights in the USA and elsewhere.
Such aircraft are designed to fly at altitudes up to 400ft and at speeds up to 65kt (120km/h).
Wing first set out to develop all-electric drones capable of delivering critical goods like medicine and food, but has shifted to test projects involving deliveries of small time-sensitive packages. In 2014, Wing’s team completed its “first real-world deliveries” using unmanned aircraft in a rural region of Queensland, Australia, transporting cargo such as first-aid kits, water and food.
Wing has also delivered products via drone through projects in Christiansburg, Virginia and Helsinki, Finland, and is supporting regulators with unmanned traffic management projects in Australia, France, Switzerland, the UK and USA.
“We have demonstrated this around the world,” says Negron.
Wing is one of three companies – the others being Amazon and UPS division UPS Flight Forward – to receive Federal Aviation Administration Part 135 air carrier certification for drone operations, Negron notes.
But Part 135 regulations were originally written for piloted, not unmanned, aircraft, notes Negron.
For that reason, Wing and others are working with the FAA to develop unmanned-specific oversight. Wing has supported the FAA’s “Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management” effort, which seeks to develop a framework to enable unmanned aircraft operations.
Story updated on 26 September to clarify that Wing is a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, and corrected to note that Amazon, not FedEx, has FAA Part 135 certification. Update also clarifies information related to, and adds details about, Wing’s operations and the InterUSS platform.