By: Martha Quillin | McClatchy-Tribune
North Carolina hopes to launch one of its next big industries out of a tiny airport in Hyde County.
The Division of Aviation, part of the state transportation department, is drafting plans for a test range where private companies and academic researchers could try out unmanned aircraft and the cameras and other devices they might carry.
If they’re successful at getting an FAA permit for the range, officials will then ask the Federal Aviation Administration to make it one of six sites nationwide the agency will use to help determine how unmanned craft can be incorporated into U.S. airspace.
Having a test range in the state could spur research and development worth billions of dollars, said Kyle Snyder, director of the NextGen Air Transportation Center at N.C. State University, which is working with the state, other universities and private industry to find uses for unmanned aircraft.
In North Carolina, Snyder said, “We could do the building, the testing, the final production, the training and the maintenance on these aircraft. We could do the full life-cycle.”
Unmanned aircraft – also called remotely piloted aircraft – have been in use for years, most notably by the U.S. and Israeli military. Large U.S. military drones have carried out attacks during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Within the United States, the FAA strictly regulates the use of unmanned aircraft. About five dozen universities and law enforcement agencies across the country are certified to operate them.
In North Carolina, they’re used by the Army and the Marines within the confines of Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune.
The test field proposed for the Engelhard Airport would be geared toward much smaller craft than those used to carry out military air strikes; those flown in Hyde County would weigh 50 pounds or less and have wing spans of up to about 10 feet. Depending on their size, they could be launched by hand or with a catapult.