May 8, 2018 / 5:23 PM / 3 months ago

EXCLUSIVE-U.S. to reveal winners of drone program that has attracted top companies

May 8 (Reuters) - Major technology and aerospace companies including Amazon.com Inc, Intel Corp, Qualcomm Inc, Raytheon Co and Airbus SE are vying to take part in a new slate of drone tests the United States is set to announce on Wednesday, people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The wide interest in the U.S. initiative, launched by President Donald Trump last year, underscores the desire of a broad range of companies to have a say in how the fledgling industry is regulated and ultimately win authority to operate drones for everything from package delivery to crop inspection.

The pilot program will allow a much larger range of tests than are generally permitted by federal aviation regulators, including flying drones at night, over people and beyond an operator’s line of sight.

The U.S. Transportation Department is set to announce 10 winning state, local or tribal governments to host the experiments out of 149 applicants. Secretary Elaine Chao will make the winners public on Wednesday. The governments in turn have partnered with companies who will play a role in the tests.

At least 200 companies applied as partners in the program, a U.S. official said.

Companies including Apple Inc, Boeing Co and Ford Motor Co have also expressed interest in the program, the sources said, though it was unclear whether they all had joined applications and what they would be testing.

Qualcomm confirmed it is on at least three applications, and Intel said it hopes to participate in the program. The other companies did not immediately answer requests for comment.

Changes to U.S. policy that result from the tests are not expected for some time. Package delivery, which can be particularly complex, might not take place until later on during the program.

Earl Lawrence, who directs the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s unmanned aircraft systems integration office, told a Senate panel on Tuesday that many of the other projects “could go forward under the FAA’s existing rules, including with waivers where appropriate.”

He said after “the 10 selections for the pilot program are announced, the FAA will be reaching out to other applicants, as well as interested state and local authorities, to provide additional information on how to operationalize their proposed projects.”

The FAA is also working on proposed regulations to ensure the safety of drones and their integration into U.S. airspace.

The initiative is significant for the United States, which has lagged other countries in drone operations for fear of air crashes. That had pushed companies like Amazon to experiment overseas.

In the United Kingdom, the world’s largest online retailer already sends some packages by drone. It completed its first such mission in late 2016, taking 13 minutes from click to delivery. (Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco and David Shepardson in Washington; Additional reporting by Stephen Nellis and Paul Lienert; editing by Chris Sanders and David Gregorio)

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