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First in Drones? NC Prepares for Boom in Unmanned Flight

Jay Price/WUNC

The state that boasts of being “First in Flight” is preparing for another major aviation development – an expected surge in unmanned flight.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation has hired its first official to oversee the regulation of drones. The department also is developing a test that by the end of the year will be mandatory for people who want to operate commercial and government drones.

Meanwhile, a center based at North Carolina State University is working with researchers, government agencies, and private companies that want to use drones in their work.

The preparations come as the Federal Aviation Administration readies new regulations that are expected to open the nation’s skies to commercial drones sometime in the next year.

“When the final rule is made into law, we will see tremendous growth,” said Thomas Haun, the Vice President of Strategy for Raleigh-based PrecisionHawk. The company makes drones, but focuses on sophisticated analysis of the data they gather.

PrecisionHawk is developing drone-based systems that it hopes will help farmers monitor pests and diseases, boost harvest size, and use less seed, herbicides, and pesticides. It also works with insurance and energy companies. It has been working closely  with N.C. State’s NextGen Air Transportation Center (NGAT), which helps it test its drones in the field.

“The market opportunity for UAVs is quite large,” Haun said. “There are estimates that the United States is in the hundreds of billions of dollars of market size in the future.”

A toy-like plane with serious uses

NGAT conducts flight tests almost every day on what it calls “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or UAVs. Using a rubber strap, the drone operators yank the toy-like, foam winged plane up a ramp and into the sky.

At a Wake County cornfield, NGAT Director Kyle Snyder watched as the drone made a recent test flight.  It passed methodically back and forth over the field, snapping photos. His group has special federal permits to use several test sites around the state. It’s collecting both flight safety data for the FAA and agricultural information for farmers.

“The flight data looking at the crops, we’re sharing that with our industry partners,” Synder said. “We’ve got one of our ag partners here today that’s looking at yield predictions for corn.”

Farmers are one of many groups eager to use drones. The state government also wants them for road surveys and bridge inspections. And at least one North Carolina town plans to use them to monitor construction projects.  

Soon, they should all be able to fly without special permission, when the federal and state governments end their moratoriums on most commercial and government drone flights.

The state is rolling out a permit system, including the mandatory test for commercial and government fliers.

Chris Gibson, the new DOT drone officer, stressed the online test is not designed to assess flying skills, and he said recreational fliers won’t have to take it. Rather, he said the exam is designed to ensure operators know the laws that apply to unmanned aerial vehicles.

Credit Jay Price/WUNC
Curt Johnson of the N.C. Geodetic Survey (left) confers with Tom Zajkowski of N.C. State’s NextGen Air Transportation Center as they prepare to launch a Trimble UX drone.

“If there’s a law on the books that specifies something as a crime, just because you use a UAV to do the same type of thing doesn’t mean that all of a sudden it’s not a crime, “Gibson said.

“So, we have Peeping Tom laws for example. You can’t go looking in your neighbors’ windows. Well, you can’t do that with a UAV either.”

Still, some experts say drones likely will raise some unforeseen issues and require additional laws.

“As the technology improves, they could get smaller and smaller and therefore less and less noticeable, said Sarah Preston of the ACLU of North Carolina. “Whereas you would maybe notice a helicopter hovering over your property for a period of time while pictures are being taken or video or whatever, you’re less likely to notice something that’s maybe the size of a bird and that doesn’t make a lot of noise.”

Preston said North Carolina’s drone law, which went into effect last year, allows law enforcement agencies to fly drones over public gatherings, even on private property. She says they could even use facial recognition technology to identify people at a political meeting. Or even a neighborhood barbecue.

“I think there’s a lot to it that people are not necessarily thinking through,” Preston said.

A birds eye view for local governments

Law enforcement is only part of what local governments are planning to do with drones. And just a small part for some of them.

A couple of years ago, the Town of Mooresville bought a small hovering drone for about $1,000.

It wanted aerial images of renovations to a town golf course for its web site. Before long, the town was using it to get crowd counts at street fairs.

Now, Town Manager Erskine Smith envisions using it to find lost people, give firefighters a birdseye view of fires, and help citizens track public works projects.

“This is certainly an easy way to allow people to understand that you’re going to build a road connecting from here to here,” Smith said. “They can actually see it and visualize it, and get an idea of ‘Oh, yeah, now I know what they’re talking about.’”

Mooresville had to mothball its drone because the state put a temporary moratorium on their use by local governments. That will end after the state permits are available and the FAA implements its regulations. But the town found the drone so useful that it applied for special permission to get back in the air sooner.

“It’s a very inexpensive tool that, you know, they always say a picture is worth a thousand words,” Smith said.

Military and Veterans Affairs Reporter, North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC