Drones: Will they fly in N.C.?

In a sleepy South Carolina town, a drone crash is creating a viral stir this week. Someone, it seems, tried to use a drone to sneak contraband – items like cellphones and marijuana – into a maximum security prison in Bishopville. But, instead of scaling the walls, the drone crashed into some bushes outside the prison.

In the sprawling metropolis of New York City, a man is accused of flying a drone equipped with a video camera outside a medical facility, taking video footage of unknowing patients.

And, in March, a passenger jet nearly collided with a drone flying above Florida,an incident that the Federation Aviation Administration uses when highlighting the risk of unmanned aircraft.

Incidents like these – as well as national news focused on the weaponization of unmanned drones in combat zones – are contributing to a bad reputation – an unwarranted one, say drone advocates and experts. But, unarguably, the incidents show the need for regulations.

Despite listing drones as a priority, legislators have yet to put their final stamp of approval on the budget. A new provision, however, does grant certain regulations, such as requiring a license to be a drone pilot and extending a moratorium on drones until December of 2015. Without regulations, the moratorium would expire and, if the FAA hasn’t outlined its own regulations on their use (regulations expected by the end of the year), there will be very little oversight on how drones are flown in our skies. Regardless of what the FAA decides, industry experts say it’s important for North Carolina to have its own regulations in play – regulations that could give it a nationwide edge in recruitment.

North Carolina, says Kyle Snyder, director for the NextGen Air Transportation Center at N.C. State University, is a prime candidate for owning the industry. Its engineering talent, coupled with its varied landscape, makes it ideal for the kind of agricultural research companies are looking for.

Companies, such as PrecisionHawk, which has been quietly moving researchers to Raleigh, want to figure out how to use the drones to analyze everything from the moisture in the soil to the yield. It's the kind of thing that's currently costing farmers, as they pay pilots to gather that kind of information. Experts say allowing farmers to collect their own information via drone would save millions. But, even if the technology were readily available, commercial drone use is prohibited.

Companies hoping to conduct drone research have to get a special certificates of authorization with the FAA and work with NGAT researchers.

Bosh Global, a Virginia drone developer, is one of those companies that already has permission to fly through NGAT. And, if all goes well, Bosh could consider moving employees to Raleigh, says general manager Young Kim, citing the talent proximity at N.C. State University as a draw.

It's Snyder’s hope that other companies could follow PrecisionHawk and Bosh's example. NGAT is currently flying at three areas – Butner, Caratoke and Hyde County, with plans to start flights at Raleigh’s Lake Wheeler in the next couple of months.

But it all goes back to the regulatory issue. And it's not confined to farming.

Snyder is seeing interest in companies looking to use drones for land surveying and emergency response. Other use areas include aerial photography, mining, forestry and disaster analysis.

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