State Budget Creates Pathway For Drones In NC

Aug 4, 2014

Buried deep and overlooked in the fight over the state’s 260-page budget is one provision that could have a profound effect on North Carolina’s skies: Lawmakers created a pathway for drone use to take off in North Carolina. 

N.C. State students prepare a drone for flight in Hyde County. The university's NextGen Air Transportation Center is the only public entity in the state currently authorized to fly unmanned vehicles.
Credit NextGen Air Transportation Center

Public agencies and private companies around the country, from firefighters to farmers, are looking to use unmanned flying vehicles in their work to check crops from afar or view a blazing house while en route to the scene. That interest is creating a commercial drone industry.

In Morganton, VX Aerospace founder Bob Skillen is testing his VX Kitty Hawk—a remote-controlled plane, the shape of a stingray, with wings and body made of one piece. Skillen formerly built parts for Marine helicopters, but he expects the agriculture industry to want unmanned versions of his new aircraft.

“We’re developing our own product for what we hope is going to be a burgeoning marketplace,” says Skillen.

Other companies offer suped-up versions of the toy quadcopters you see in stores. For now, companies cannot use them, while the Federal Aviation Administration works on rules to govern the devices.

North Carolina lawmakers have set their own rules in this year’s budget. Kyle Snyder at NC State’s NextGen Air Transportation Center says the effort complements the FAA’s. “It gives us more structure—more structure than is available today, more structure ahead of what the FAA is coming out with,” says Snyder. “But it will all align with what the FAA is going to eventually release.”

The new law bans spying into a home or surveilling private property without the owner’s consent. It generally requires police to get a warrant before using the devices, but maintains a current moratorium on that and most state uses until the end of next year. In the meantime the state transportation department will create systems for licensing both public officials and companies, similar to how driver’s licenses work.