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Why Alphabet’s Drone Guru Is Pleased With New FAA Regulations

July 18, 2016, 8:38 PM UTC
Flying drone with camera
Photogtaph by Buena Vista Images — Getty Images

Over the past two years, the federal government has made more progress regulating drones by working with companies than it has in the last two decades.

That’s according to Dave Vos, the project lead of Google’s (GOOG) experimental drone delivery program, Project Wing. Alphabet’s research arm X currently oversees the search giant’s foray into using drones to deliver goods.

In June, the Federal Aviation Administration took a big step in opening the door to widespread use of drones by businesses when it published rules that lay out how companies can use drones for everything from inspecting cellphone towers to taking pictures of farmers’ fields. The rules, which will take affect in August, include a ban on companies from flying drones over 400 feet in altitude and requiring that drone operators obtain the equivalent of licenses to fly.

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With more people buying drones than ever, and the relatively low cost of the devices, “suddenly, the regulators had to pay attention,” Vos said in San Francisco on Monday during an event hosted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a drone and robotics industry trade group.

He was pleased with the FAA’s basic rules, which are still subject to modification. He added that the government has taken a very business-friendly approach, saying that, “Basically, there are no barriers” between the two sides.

“The regulators are willing to have that conversation,” Vos said.

Even with the passing of the recent drone rules, there are still some barriers to Google (GOOG), Amazon (AMZN), Wal-Mart (WMT), and other companies that want to use drones to deliver goods. For example, the rules ban flying drones at night and require drone operators to fly them only within their line of sight.

Still, Vos explained that the fact that the government is at least talking to businesses about drones is an important step, although he did not elaborate on how the new rules impact Google’s drone delivery project. Google has been testing drone deliveries in other countries like Australia, for example.

He contrasted the rise of drones to the growth of the Internet in the 1990’s, and said one of the reasons the web’s popularity exploded was the absence of federal regulations that could have hurt growth.

Vos said he part of a government appointed task force that helped create drone registration rules in the fall for hobbyists. Although the group included many different groups like drone companies, law enforcement, and consumer electronics makers, it was able to come up with guidelines in three days.

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“In three days, we converged on what I think is a great step forward,” Vos said. “Ten years is dead,” he explained about how slowly the government moved previously in creating drone regulations.

Still, Vos emphasized that the FAA is not the world’s only drone regulator. A number of other countries like Canada and the Netherlands have rules that are more lax by comparison. He said that he wants to “make the regulators compete with each other.” These regulators play an important rule in jumpstarting the worldwide drone industry, and if one country is perceived as more lenient than another, businesses can use that as leverage to convince that another country’s regulator to ease up.

“I have a super relationship with the U.S.,” said Vos. “That said, I talk with everyone else as well.”