Consumer Watchdog Asks NASA to End Special Drone Testing Deal With Google Giving Internet Giant Unfair Advantage Over Competitors At Taxpayer Expense

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Santa Monica, CA — Consumer Watchdog today asked NASA’s Inspector General to end a special NASA-Google deal to test unmanned drones over private land because it gives the Internet giant an unfair market advantage over competitors, and because the benefits to taxpayers are unclear.

“NASA should suspend this special arrangement with Google immediately—before new test runs start over Merced, California, pending an explanation about how this technology benefits taxpayers and the federal government itself,” wrote Consumer Advocate Liza Tucker in a letter to Paul Martin, NASA’s Inspector General. “The benefits are currently unclear, and taxpayers have a right to be concerned as this is not the first time that Google has abused taxpayers, advancing commercial technology at their expense.”

For the letter, see:

The letter also asked Martin to investigate whether a special relationship between Google and NASA officials led to the unusual arrangement. For the past year, Google and NASA have been testing the drones over private land through a NASA exemption. Over the next six months, Google and NASA will test near Merced to see if cellphone signals can be used to control and land the drones.

The Guardian revealed details of the joint NASA-Google field tests that allow Google to see whether cell phone signals can be used for automatic air traffic control of drones. The results have big commercial implications for Google’s X Lab, and other subsidiaries such as its own wireless phone company and potentially to other companies such as AT&T.  Read the article:
The US currently bans the domestic commercial operation of unmanned aircraft. The FAA requires drones to be operated by licensed pilots, and owned or exclusively operated by public agencies. Universities, public agencies, and commercial companies can receive FAA waivers, but the information filed is public. Google’s NASA waiver kept the technology out of the public eye, until Google recently filed for an FAA waiver.

“This kind of favoritism is nothing new,” said Tucker. Last year, NASA leased Moffett Federal Airfield to a Google subsidiary.  A NASA investigation made public a month after the lease award in 2014 found that Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Co-Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin saved $5.3 million on jet fuel by buying it at a federal discount for a fleet of corporate jets based at Moffett. The audit found that the arrangement “engendered a sense of unfairness and a perception of favoritism toward…its owners.”

For more on Google and its inappropriate relationships with the federal government see Consumer Watchdog’s report: Lost in the Cloud: Google and the US Government:

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Liza Tucker
Liza Tucker
Liza Tucker is a consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, following everything from oil and gas to the regulation of toxic substances in the state of California. She comes to us from Marketplace, the largest U.S. broadcast show on business and economics heard by ten million listeners each week on 400 radio stations. Liza worked at this public radio show for a decade, first as Commentary Editor and then as Senior Editor for both Washington and Sustainability News.

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