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Head of Google drone project predicts passenger planes without pilots

This undated image provided by Google shows a Project Wing drone vehicle during delivery. The head of a project that is developing commercial drones predicts the day will come when passenger aircraft will fly without pilots.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Google

The head of a project that is developing commercial drones predicts the day will come when passenger aircraft will fly without pilots.

Dave Vos, head of Google’s Project Wing, said Monday his personal view is that it’s completely doable and that it will occur in his lifetime.

“I’m completely confident it’s going to happen and I’m going to be a part of it — there’s no question,” the 54-year-old pioneer in unmanned aerial vehicles told reporters.

Vos was speaking at the start of a three-day symposium on remotely piloted aircraft systems that’s being hosted in Montreal by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Project Wing is a delivery system that uses self-flying vehicles to transport goods quickly and safely.

Tests using a fleet of drones were carried out in Australia over the past two years and a video on YouTube shows a drone, which looks like a flying wing, lowering a package of doggie treats to the ground using a tether.

As for commercial use, Vos would not give a timetable, saying he would like to see his pilotless aircraft operating “as soon as possible.”

“I’ve been dreaming about this since I was 15,” he said. “I don’t plan on dreaming about it forever, I want to make it work.”

ICAO council president Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu said Monday the presence of unmanned aircraft has been gradually increasing and has now reached a point of real concern for the safety of manned aviation.

In his opening remarks, he told industry and government representatives that a comprehensive framework is needed so remotely piloted aircraft can be integrated safely and efficiently into regular aircraft operations.

Aliu noted that unmanned aircraft are being used for hundreds of different applications, including recreational activities and for cargo delivery.

Also added to the list are: agriculture, pipeline inspection, oil exploration, wildlife monitoring as well as moviemaking.

“Today, thousands of these aircraft, with greatly varying characteristics and features, are being sold daily and many — if not the large majority of them in fact — to individuals who are unfamiliar with how to operate them safely and responsibly.

“We must find a way for unmanned and manned aviation to coexist in common airspace.”

In his keynote address, Michael Whitaker of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration told the symposium that drones are rapidly changing the face of aviation.

“Our role is to build a regulatory structure that allows their introduction into the airspace in a fashion that is both safe and efficient,” the FAA’s deputy administrator said.

“At the end of the day, we have to come up with a harmonized system, which is where ICAO plays such an important role.”

Transport Canada regulates the use of unmanned aircraft that are used for work and pleasure. They should only be flown during daylight and in good weather.

They should not fly in populated areas or any closer than nine kilometres from airports. They should also avoid sporting events, concerts, festivals and fireworks shows.

Depending on the weight of the drones, permission to fly may be required from Transport Canada.