BY JAY PRICE
RALEIGH — The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to issue long-awaited draft regulations for operating small commercial drones this year, something that’s expected to open the skies to a multibillion-dollar industry.
President Barack Obama called for drone regulations this week after one landed, apparently by accident, on the White House lawn.
But with experts saying new rules for civilian use are still probably months or even years away, North Carolina’s nascent drone industry and state government agencies that are eager to use the aircraft aren’t waiting.
In coming days, the state-funded NextGen Air Transportation office at N.C. State University plans to apply for special FAA permission to start drone experiments for the state Department of Transportation.
Meanwhile, one of the state’s largest drone companies, Raleigh-based PrecisionHawk, is expecting its own FAA exemption in the next few weeks so that it can begin commercial operations across the United States.
NGAT, which has been investigating various aspects of drone use at several sites around the state, will demonstrate its newest aircraft Thursday for state officials and members of the media at an N.C. State University farm off Lake Wheeler Road. That particular aircraft is mainly aimed at agricultural use, said the office’s director, Kyle Snyder.
By late spring, NGAT expects to receive the aircraft it will use for the DOT experiments, Snyder said.
The highway department is keen to evaluate several jobs it thinks drones could do well, said Bobby Walston, aviation director for DOT. Among those are investigating routes for new roads and inspecting bridges, construction sites and rock slides.
Other state agencies will be keeping a close eye on the work, too, Snyder said, including the Division of Emergency Management, which could use drones for evaluating damage in disasters and for search and rescue.
A bigger question is probably which state agency, if any, would not have a proper use for a drone, said state Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican who helped craft a state drone law approved last year that addressed privacy issues among other things.
“We can all understand the potential for law enforcement, and we could really save taxpayer dollars with bridge inspection,” said Torbett, who will attend the demonstration flight Thursday. “I doubt that there is a state agency – except maybe treasurer – that won’t have an opportunity to apply the technology and do it in a very cost-effective way.”
Given that it’s impossible to even guess at the range of applications for drones, the economic potential they represent here, both for drone users and companies that are involved in creating them, is unknowable but huge, Torbett said.
PrecisionHawk is already doing business in Canada, Great Britain, Australia and Latin America. It’s beginning to do more work on applications across a range of industries, including oil and gas, insurance, geology and mining and search and rescue, but its main focus has been agriculture.
PrecisionHawk sells its basic aircraft for about $16,000, but it essentially considers itself a data company, said spokeswoman Lia Reich.
That’s probably not surprising, given that the company has close ties to more traditional tech outfits. PrecisionHawk got a $10 million influx of cash this fall from a group of investors that included Bob Young, co-founder of the Red Hat software company, who sits on its board of directors.
The drone – which has a fuselage crafted from circuit boards rather than aerospace material – uploads the data it gathers to the cloud, where software developed by PrecisionHawk analyzes it and delivers the results to, say, a farmer’s laptop.
The buzzphrase is “precision agriculture.” Depending on which sensors a drone is configured with, the data it picks up when flying slowly over the farm can determine things such as how much nitrogen should be added to which part of a field or where weeds or disease are popping up, Reich said.
By helping farmers apply only as much nitrogen as a field needs, PrecisionHawk not only saves them money but helps reduce nitrogen runoff into streams and waterways.
Data from the drone also can help boost crop productivity. Just how much is something the company plans to gather more data on this year while working on several North Carolina farms in partnership with NGAT, Reich said.