clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Drones from Google’s Alphabet will take flight soon. But can they outmatch Amazon?

There’s a difference in focus: Package delivery versus managing low-altitude airspace.

FAA Administrator Huerta Discusses Federal Drone Registration Process At CES
Project Wing lead Dave Vos
David Becker / Getty

On Tuesday, the White House gave the green light for testing of Alphabet’s Project Wing. Now we get to see exactly what the ambitious drone delivery initiative hatched inside Google wants to do.

More critically, we’ll see if that direction is able to outmatch the equally ambitious drone project hatched at Amazon.

The government is giving Project Wing (now part of X, a separate Alphabet company) the go-ahead to fly its drones at one of the FAA test sites, part of the regulatory push to explore the safety and feasibility issues of unmanned flight.

This won’t immediately allow the full-scale, autonomous robots zooming across the country that tech companies imagine. But the decision, which will be the largest test of commercial drones in the U.S. to date, is a big step. Amazon won permission to test its drones in the United Kingdom earlier this summer.

Neither company has said much about its plans here. (We asked X for comment but got none.) But they are likely to diverge in focus.

Amazon has spoken about its focus on quick and efficient parcel delivery.

Inside Project Wing, the conversation is more focused on airspace — ways the unit can help orchestrate and manage the to-be-determined system for controlling future drone traffic below 400 feet, the federal ceiling for unmanned aircraft. Project Wing has said it wants this system to be open, a very Google-y thing to say.

Here’s what Dave Vos, the project director, told Bloomberg last year:

We think the airspace side of this picture is really not a place where any one entity or any one organization can think of taking charge. The idea being that it’s not ‘Google is going to go out and build a solution and everyone else has to subscribe to it.’ The idea really is anyone should be free to build a solution.

One way to read between the lines: Don’t let Amazon build the only solution here.

How Project Wing builds a business airspace management system, I do not know. One source familiar with the drone world said the unit has considered deliveries from one business to another, rather than depositing packages on consumer’s doorsteps. Another option may be holding the keys to unmanned airspace, should the government allow it.

Vos said last fall that he expects a commercial drone program to be up and running by 2017.

This article originally appeared on