Google wants to test secret airborne technology at New Mexico's 'spaceport' and an Indian reservation

Google May Start Using Drones by 2017
Google May Start Using Drones by 2017

Google plans to test secret airborne communications technology at the New Mexico "spaceport" facility where space tourism and exploration companies Virgin Galactic and SpaceX have set up shop, as well as an Indian reservation in Oregon.

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Google wants to test a radio technology that involves aircraft hovering 25,000 feet in the air and several terrestrial stations located at Spaceport America, a facility funded by the state of New Mexico that hopes to be the center of the nascent space tourism industry, according to recently filed documents with the Federal Communications Commission.

Google also requested authority to test the technology at an Indian reservation in Warm Springs, Oregon, and in Pescadero, California, according to the documents. The filings were submitted in the summer, before Google restructured into the Alphabet holding company, which creates independent companies out of various Google groups.

The filings represent the latest evidence of Google and parent-company Alphabet's expanding efforts to take to the skies, as it looks to blanket the globe with its web services. The company is working on several air and space-based projects, including Loon, which uses air balloons to beam internet access down to earth, Project Titan, which uses drones to deliver internet access and Project Wing, which involves drones delivering packages.

Data communications via an aircraft

Much of the filings are redacted, and they do not specify which project Google or Alphabet plans to test at Spaceport America and the other locations. Nor do they specify whether the aircraft will be manned or unmanned. But Google provides an interesting description of the tests.

In the proposed testing, Google will use 2.5 GHz band frequencies solely for communications payload (specifically, to relay data communications from one fixed ground station to another via an aircraft), not flight-related activities or communications to and from either maritime or mobile satellite use.

Google's statement that it is not testing "flight-related activities" would seem to rule out the Project Wing tests detailed earlier this year by The Guardian, in which Google was reported to be testing whether cell phones can provide air-traffic control for low-flying drones.

The application also states that the aircraft will fly at maximum altitude of 25,000 feet, which is below the 60,000 to 90,000 feet that Loon balloons fly at.

A Google project called Titan, which is developing solar-powered drones intended to fly at 65,000 feet, was initially based in Moriarty, New Mexico, but recently announced it is moving its operations to California.

A casino and a spaceport

Google's application to the FCC lists Frank McLoughlin, an engineering director at Google whose LinkedIn profile says he was previously an aviation engineer at Garmin International, and Paul Husted, a Google hardware engineer who previously developed wireless communications chips at Qualcomm.

Google said in the filings that it expected to conduct the tests from August 31 of this year until February 27, 2016. The application for an experimental license says Google intends to "expeditiously test radios in a way that is likely to contribute to the development, extension, expansion, or utilization of the radio art."

Spaceport America describes itself on its website as "the world's first purpose-built, commercial spaceport designed with the needs of the commercial, space business in mind."

The facility includes "basic operational infrastructure such as an airfield, launch pads, terminal/hangar facility, emergency response capabilities, utilities and roadways" and is capable of accommodating both "vertical and horizontal takeoff space launch vehicles." The facility's anchor tenant is Virgin Galactic.

According to the coordinates on the FCC application, the facilities at which Google will conduct tests with the aircraft in Oregon include a casino and resort located in the Warm Springs Indian reservation and several cell phone towers in the area.

We've reached out to both Spaceport America and to Google for comment and will update this story if we hear more.

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Originally published