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Future Of Drones In North Carolina

NextGen Air Transportation Center

State Chief Information Officer Chris Estes tells us about the future of drone technology in North Carolina and how drones could be used by law enforcement, in hurricane recovery and agriculture.

When most people think of drones, they think of military intelligence and surveillance.  But unmanned aircraft can also be used in a variety of civil applications.  North Carolina officials directed State chief information officer Chris Estes and the Department of Transportation to determine if there’s a need for drone technology in state and local government and, if so, begin planning for it.  Estes says the 26 page document released last month concluded that governments in the state should pursue the use of drone technology.

“The technology literally has hundreds of uses.  It’s evolving and we’re anxious to see how it evolves.”

 Future uses for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, may prove useful for law enforcement, in helping with surveillance, crowd control, and finding escaped inmates.  Drones could also be used to monitor wildlife and for agricultural purposes.  But right now, that’s unauthorized.  The Federal Aviation Administration has restricted the use of commercial drones until late 2015.  This year’s state budget mandated that any UAS flights conducted by government entities must be approved by the CIO Estes.

“Three locations in North Carolina issued to the COA and we’ve given them permission to fly in those three locations.”

Credit NextGen Air Transportation Center

Land in Hyde County, in Butner and Moyock are the only areas that are approved for NextGen Air Transportation Center at North Carolina State University to fly UAVs over.  The non-profit is leading the way in drone research by exploring the use of commercial drones in agricultural practices.

 “We had a group look at uses in crop surveying so farmers can survey crops with various types of instruments on the technology that would allow them to look at which areas of the field are stressed, which areas are in drought situations using infrared technology, where they might need to apply more water to increase the yield of their crops.”

Drones could add an estimated $23.5 million to the agricultural sector between 2015 and 2017.  According to statistics from The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International located in Arlington Virginia, an estimated 80% of the commercial market for drones will be for agricultural uses.  The university’s engineering program has been experimenting with aerospace system design and radio control for three decades. 

 Eastern North Carolina is an area prone to hurricanes and severe weather.  Another practical use for drone technology is hurricane and disaster recovery and in emergency situations.  

Credit NextGen Air Transportation Center

“It’s an easy technology to deploy so getting eyes on the scene in the event of a disaster is always a priority so you understand exactly what’s going on. There is numerous applications in emergency applications, whether it’s following something like a hurricane, or a lost child in the woods, I mean there are multiple emergency management applications with the technology.”

 Perhaps the biggest advantage that drones offer is that they eliminate the need for a human pilot onboard.  Estes says this makes UAVs especially useful for fighting wildfires.

 "It’s a lot safer to put this technology in the air over a fire.  If it’s damaged, it’s definitely a loss but it’s not the same as a loss of a man or pilot who might be put in harm’s way trying to look at the perimeter of a fire, and understand where it is and which way it’s moving.”

 Drones have already proven their flexibility. Recently, Wake Forest biology professor Miles Silman and a team of researchers used a fixed wing drone to create a 3D model of the area impacted by a recent Duke Energy coal ash spill.  ScienceDaily.com reported the UAV collected a mosaic of 282 images that led researchers to estimate how many millions of gallons of ash sludge spilled into the Dan River in February.  Wake Forest is also using drones abroad to explore climate change in the Peruvian Amazon.

While UAVs have a variety of uses, Estes says the main benefit to local and state government is that drones are much less expensive to operate than traditional aircraft.

 “It’s actually very affordable technology.  There are some units that are$400-$500 range that are more hobbyist oriented, but can still carry a small payload, take a photograph, video imagery. That’s relatively inexpensive for most folks and obviously they move up in price range from there into the thousands of dollars.” 

Credit NextGen Air Transportation Center

The future of drones use in North Carolina looks promising.  But before commercial drones are seen darting over Carolina skies, there are privacy and data security issues that need to be addressed.  Estes says the State is working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration to identify safety concerns.

 “Sharing the airspace with manned aircraft is one of the main foremost concerns the FAA has with the technology, how they co-exist in the same airspace.  For example, I had a North Carolina Highway Patrol Trooper fly a helicopter and they were concerned with the safety of the pilot in the air in case the pilot couldn’t see this unmanned air system in the air it might actually crash into him while he’s flying and that wouldn’t be good for anybody.”

 Non-commercial use of UAVs is allowed in North Carolina, but strict regulations apply.  For example, drones can’t be operated within five miles of an airport and must travel below 400 feet.

 Supporters of UAV technology are touting economic gain and job creation as reasons for commercial drone use in the state.  According to a study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, UAVs are expected to contribute $153 million dollars to North Carolina’s overall economy between 2015 and 2017.

Credit NextGen Air Transportation Center

“There are multiple states that have passed various laws on this particular technology most of them centered around privacy and making sure that citizens privacy is protected, not only on the forefront of North Carolina General Assembly’s mind.  There’s a special committee from the General Assembly that’s been studying this topic and ultimately they will make the policy decision that’s in line with the will of the people.”

The legislative research committee meets later this month to finalize their report.  It’s not known at this time if the topic will be addressed during the General Assembly’s short session in May or the long session next year.  I’m Jared Brumbaugh.

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.