Google Drones Lift Industry Hopes - BestCyberNews: Online News Presenter in the present world

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Google Drones Lift Industry Hopes

When Inc. CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled a plan in December to deliver packages by drones, it was widely viewed as a public-relations stunt during the holiday shopping season. Less than nine months later, Google's similar drone initiative is landing in a different climate.

The changed atmosphere reflects Google's financial and lobbying heft, which should help overcome technical and regulatory obstacles. But it also reflects growing confidence in technology until now more often associated with missiles than packages, and surging interest in potential uses.

Since June, the Federal Aviation Administration has fielded 31 requests to fly drones commercially, from companies involved in agriculture, pipeline inspection, aerial surveying and movie production. BP PLC won clearance in June to operate drones in Alaska. Walt Disney Co. has applied for three drone patents. And dozens of others are flying the devices commercially without permission.

"I'm thrilled to see big companies like Google get into the game precisely because they can help effect policy change," said Russ Tedrake, a robotics expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "People have had time to get more comfortable with the idea since the Amazon announcement. Many of us think it's almost inevitable at this point."

There are still hurdles to using drones to deliver packages. The FAA effectively bans almost all commercial use in the U.S. That policy may change in the next couple of years. But the FAA has said that for the foreseeable future it will require pilots for drone flights, which would hurt the economics of delivery drones.

Drones need better navigation tools to avoid people, trees, power lines, birds, and other drones. And they need better batteries if they are to carry packages more than a few miles.

The FAA plans to propose rules for small drones in November and finalize them one or two years later. But the regulator has missed other deadlines, in part because of a lack of data on how the devices operate. Drone-industry executives fear the U.S. is falling behind countries like Australia and Canada that already have more open regulations.

Google's entry announced Thursday will further advance drones' cause, given the Internet search giant's more than $50 billion in cash, previous experience with autonomous vehicle regulation and lobbying muscle.

Google has hired law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP to lobby government officials on civilian use of drones. Amazon and other drone companies including 3D Robotics Inc., DJI Technology Co. and Parrot SA hired the same firm. Google has experience with a related task: persuading regulators in California and Nevada to permit its self-driving cars on public roads.

Companies like Google "have a track record of doing what they said they were going to do and have massive lobbying power and money to spend," said Patrick Egan, director of special programs at the Remote Controlled Aerial Platform Association, a drone-industry group.

Computer and Internet firms spent $141 million on lobbying last year, far exceeding defense and aerospace companies that spent $58 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. Google has spent almost $9 million this year through late July, data from the group's website show. Google declined to comment Friday.

The FAA has talked to Google about its delivery drone effort, known as Project Wing. Les Dorr, a spokesman at the agency, said the project is at "very early stages" in the U.S. and noted that Google hasn't applied to do anything with its drones in the country so far. Amazon applied earlier this year for an exemption to test its drones in tightly controlled areas.

As it considers new rules, the FAA commissioned six drone test sites across the U.S. Google is conducting its own tests. Its Project Wing prototypes made test deliveries in Australia this month, taking candy bars, dog treats, cattle vaccines, water and radios to two farmers in Queensland.

Google can share data from such tests with the FAA, said Mike Toscano, president of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems Integration, a trade group. "The way you convince regulators is with data that proves this is safe," he said. "Real testing also helps identify what needs to be changed and Google is already doing this."

By Alistair Barr, Jack Nicas and Greg Bensinger (WSJ)