May 8, 2018 / 7:04 PM / 2 months ago

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

(New throughout, adds details on applications and comments from U.S. senator saying one company and town won)

By Jeffrey Dastin and David Shepardson

May 8 (Reuters) - Major technology and aerospace companies including Amazon.com Inc, Apple Inc, Intel Corp, Qualcomm Inc 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 said it will announce 10 winning state, local or tribal governments to host the experiments on Wednesday. The governments in turn have partnered with companies who will play a role in the tests.

Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, who is up for re-election in November, said in a press release the city of Reno was named one of the winners. The city is partnered with Nevada-based Flirtey, a company that has worked on delivering defibrillators by drone, as well as pizza for Domino's.

At least 200 companies spanning 149 applications are vying to be part of the program, a U.S. official said. Many major U.S. companies are part of the winning submissions.

Winners include projects focused on package delivery, environmental monitoring, precision agriculture, pipeline oversight and integrating drones near airports, the U.S. official said.

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

Amazon declined to comment. Airbus, Intel and Qualcomm confirmed they on one or more applications, with Airbus noting it is interested in topics like risk analysis for airspace management. Qualcomm hopes to test network connectivity along with partners Verizon Communications Inc and AT&T Inc.

Raytheon Co said it had not applied but was in talks with partners who have. 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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