Raleigh's PrecisionHawk to help feds in drone registration

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By Lauren K. Ohnesorge for Triangle Biz Journal

As the feds move to require drone owners to register their devices – a move intended to respond to the uptick of the unmanned technology in restricted airspace – a Raleigh company is among those helping to craft the process.

Raleigh-based drone developer PrecisionHawk, along with a handful of other companies, has been tapped for a safety task force created by both the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration to develop what they’re calling “an augmented registration process” for drones.

Ernest Earon, PrecisionHawk chief technology officer and co-founder, calls the task force a demonstration of “the willingness” of the FAA to work with industry leaders to safely integrate the technology.

Tech leaders have said for years that drones present a huge opportunity.

“Imagine if there’s a natural disaster, sending drones out that can do reconnaissance … send the aid to the right places,” Mark Skarpness, director of embedded software at the Open Source Technology Center at Intel, told a crowd of programmers at the downtown Raleigh-based All Things Open conference Monday.

He sees drones as a humanitarian tool – but only if security challenges can be overcome.

Businesses, from mammoth farming operations in eastern North Carolina to oil companies with hard-to-reach rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, see the profit potential in using the devices. Even e-retailer Amazon sees the dollar signs, having been vocal about its intent to one day deliver goods via drone.

But all of these applications carry a big caveat – and that’s security. Should a drone – accidentally or otherwise – come into contact with an aircraft, transportation officials fear the result could be devastation – that kind that makes the world wary of further investments in the technology. And reports suggest it’s a healthy fear. Recent FAA reports show airplane pilot sightings of unmanned aircraft have seen a dramatic increase over the past year, from 238 sightings in all of 2014 to more than 650 by Aug. 9 of this year.

And, according to the feds, right now, there’s no concrete way to identify the drone pilot, should one of the devices be discovered to be interfering with a commercial airliner.

That changes with registration requirements. But critics fear that, with a growing number of drones on the market, any requirements will be difficult to enforce.

Registration is just the latest federal effort aimed at thwarting abuses, however.

Earlier this year, PrecisionHawk, alongside CNN and BNSF, was chosen for the FAA Pathfinder Program, a research project currently testing and developing GPS-driven software solutions to enable pilots to operate the drones safely when they can’t physically see the devices from the ground. Part of that research could involve setting up what’s called a geofence, where drones can’t operate in certain areas, including near airports.