Alphabet is now allowed to fly a swarm of 20 drones at once over US skies

Launch time.
Launch time.
Image: YouTube/X, the moonshot factory
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What’s that buzzing sound?

As part of its research for Project Wing, a plan to deliver goods using autonomous drones, Alphabet’s “moonshot” research division, X, was awarded a certificate by the US Federal Aviation Administration to pilot drones in the US Nov. 25. The certification, first spotted by drone magazine Drone360, allows a Google pilot to control up to 20 drones at a time.

A spokesperson for X confirmed that the certificate was for the delivery tests that the lab has been running in recent years, but wasn’t able to comment on the purpose of having one person control a swarm of 20 drones for delivering products to people. There are precedents in other industries for wanting a single pilot to have the ability to manage multiple drones. Intel, for example, is using this technology to control a massive swarm of 300 drones to play light shows at Disney theme parks, and intends to develop swarming drones that could be used in search-and-rescue missions to help authorities cover vast swaths of land easily.

Alphabet’s permission to fly comes with some heavy caveats: The pilot must keep the drones flying below 200 ft, keep them in line of sight at all times, and fly only near a private airfield in Merced, California. But this is a first step in setting up a regulatory framework that Alphabet can eventually use to set up a delivery-drone service. Last year, former Project Wing leader Dave Vos said that the company aimed to start delivering with drones in 2017.

Recently, X tested delivering burritos from Chipotle to students at Virginia Tech. The move was arguably little more than a publicity stunt, given that current regulations require a drone pilot to keep a drone within his or her field of view the entire time it’s flying. That means that setting up a delivery network, where drones fly out on their own to deliver goods a few miles from their location, is impossible. The FAA has indicated that in the future, it would may update and adapt the regulations that it put into place this year to allow autonomous drone deliveries. But the air-traffic control system it has tasked NASA with building isn’t due to be shown to the FAA until 2019.

In the meantime, X’s project has had some issues, erm, taking off. Vos left the project in October, and according to Bloomberg, hiring was frozen on the project and members of team were asked to look for jobs elsewhere. Project Wing had also been working on a deal with Starbucks to test delivering coffee, but the partnership was called off, after disagreements over what Starbucks customer data Alphabet could have access to, Bloomberg also reported. Whether this certificate will help Alphabet get closer to its goal of drone deliveries remains very much up in the air.