North Carolina Taking Steps to Clear Way for Drone Technology

While North Carolina officials wait for the federal government to decide on rules for the private sector, the state is trying to develop a regulatory pathway for state and local municipal agencies to take advantage of drone technology.

by Gareth McGrath - Star-News, Wilmington, N.C. / February 9, 2015

(TNS) Feb. 09--SOUTHEASTERN N.C. -- Chris Rackley doesn't want to flout the rules. But the Surf City real estate agent, who has been playing around with remote-controlled vehicles for more than a decade, is frustrated that he can't legally use his drone to help grow his business -- especially when others, either because they aren't worried about getting caught or just don't know the rules, are doing just that.

"I understand we have some of the busiest airspace in the world, and I understand safety has to come first," said the president of Lewis Realty. "But there needs to be some movement because there isn't a single industry where there's not a use for one of these things."

Technological advances often leave regulators straining to develop or adapt rules to keep up with the latest gadget or invention. Drone technology, which is developing by leaps and bounds ever year, is a perfect example of this.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the nation's airspace, is years behind on issuing rules covering the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) -- the official name for drones -- for commercial purposes.

While North Carolina officials wait for the federal government to decide on rules for the private sector, the state is trying to develop a regulatory pathway for state and local municipal agencies to take advantage of drone technology.

The state's law enforcement community also sees unmanned aircraft holding great potential. In a letter to state lawmakers last year, Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram said UAS could assist the county in search and rescue operations, patrol of local waterways, marijuana busts and hostage situations.

But the state is moving slowly, an understandable situation due to the lack of standards at the federal level and the myriad of privacy and other concerns having eyes in the sky can raise.

The N.C. Office of the State Chief Information Officer (CIO) must grant an exception for any government or law enforcement agency wanting to operate a drone. Agency spokeswoman Stephanie Hawco said only one entity has asked, and received, permission to operate them in North Carolina -- the NextGen Air Transportation Center (NGAT) at N.C. State University.

"We're really trying to help grow this entire industry in North Carolina," said NGAT director Kyle Snyder.

Sectors seen as promising for drone use include emergency response, survey work, and monitoring and inspection of infrastructure like bridges. NGAT also plans to work with The Nature Conservancy in the Green Swamp during some of the conservation group's upcoming prescribed burns to gauge how effective drones can be in tracking and monitoring forest fires.

While researching the possibilities and limits of drones, Snyder said his office is also helping regulators develop guidelines for UAS operators and use as the state tries to strike a balance between protecting individual liberties and embracing new technologies.

Legislation passed in 2014 requires the DOT to create a knowledge and skills test for drone operators. A bill proposed this session by state Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, would allow government entities to fly unmanned aircraft prior to implementation of the testing requirements if they get an exception from the state CIO.

Even as officials try to develop a framework to get drones legally in the air, just what those drone operators should be able to do with the unmanned aircraft remains murky.

Sarah Preston, policy director with the N.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said current state rules are vague as to what would warrant legal surveillance by law enforcement using a drone. Regulations also are muddy as to how news-gathering organizations can use UAS.

"Our argument has never been there's no legitimate use for them," she said. "Our argument is that there's a chance of a pretty significant threat to privacy."

But many people aren't waiting for official permission to integrate drones into their operations, especially as the technology improves and prices continue to drop.

Officials admit there's already widespread use of drones in the professional photography and real estate fields. Recently, the FAA also granted a half-dozen photo and video-production companies permission to use drones -- with a host of restrictions -- on film sets. Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, said he wasn't aware of drones being used on any shoots in the region so far.

Back on Topsail Island, Rackley said he's excited about the possibilities that drones hold for his business and others as his custom-built drone hovered 100 feet or so above his office.

As he watched video from the drone's camera on a screen attached to his controller, Rackley said he's applied to the FAA for an exception to use his drone to help market properties.

"What you can see up there gives you a whole new vantage point," he said. "It lets you see things you otherwise wouldn't be able to show and will help us answer many of the client's questions.

"It really is revolutionary."

Gareth McGrath: 910-343-2384

On Twitter: @Gman2000

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