First in flight: North Carolina aims to lead the drone game | Crain's Charlotte

First in flight: North Carolina aims to lead the drone game

A six-rotor drone amid a test flight. | Photo by Richard Unten via Creative Commons.

More than a century after the Wright brothers’ famous first flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina has taken off in yet another aerial industry — unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

A relatively young industry, in general, North Carolina first began funding research and integration in the UAS field in 2012, according to Basil Yap, UAS program manager in the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation.

In 2014, the North Carolina General Assembly established the UAS Program Office, which oversees training and permitting requirements with the state’s department of transportation. Since that time, the industry continues to soar, with the biggest bump occurring in August 2016, when the licensing requirements changed. Before August 2016, Yap explained, one needed a manned pilot’s license, which requires 40 hours of flight time, to operate a UAS. After that date, the pilot’s license requirement was replaced with a remote pilot’s license.

“The NCDOT has issued permits for 977 commercial and government operations,” Yap told Crain’s. “The amount of permits jumped just after ... the new rule in August. The past three months have been the highest months in permits since we started the permitting process in January 2016.”

More than 300 of those nearly 1,000 permits issued were within the past three months, Yap said, indicating the trend is still climbing upward.

Unmanned aircraft registrations in North Carolina are outpacing manned aircraft registrations by a nearly three to one clip: The UAS registration count is at 20,000, compared to 7,000 traditional aircraft, according to the state.

“We’re probably on par with New York and North Dakota,” which are leaders in the industry, said Yap, when asked where the Tar Heel State fits in compared to the rest of the country.

Charlotte UAV

Brett Smith, who co-founded Charlotte UAV, said he picked North Carolina because the state was “very drone-friendly” and a leader in the industry.

“We started the company in 2014 and we were one of the first companies to get approval for an exemption allowing us to operate UAVs for commercial purposes,” Smith said. “North Carolina was one of the first states to issue their own statewide UAV policy, and they were one of the first states to see the potential value, and implemented regulations before the FAA did.”

Charlotte UAV primarily operates its unmanned aerial vehicles for fly-for-hire services, such as conducting surveys and mapping. The company also operates a multi-rotor, heavy-lift drone that can carry up to 75 pounds including sensors.

Smith highlighted his military aviation experience, as well as that of his co-founder, Walter Lappert.

“Walter and I were weapons troops in the Air Force,” Smith explained. “We specialized in loading smart weapons and configured them with the onboard computer system. The smart bombs are GPS-guided and use similar protocols to what UAVs use to navigate the airspace autonomously.

“We also bring military-grade precision and durability to the drones we build. We follow similar maintenance protocols and pre- and post-flight procedures that we learned in the Air Force.”

As far as where the industry is potentially headed, “We haven’t scratched the surface yet,” Smith said, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. is a world leader.

Regulated airspace

“Europe is 10 years ahead of the U.S. in terms of UAV applications and they have very UAV-friendly regulations,” Smith said. “Technology-friendly regulations will allow our industry to move forward. Right now, we are so limited in where we can and can’t fly, and there have been so many restrictions preventing the advancement in our industry.”

In North Carolina, unmanned aircraft cannot fly higher than 400 feet without a special, per-use permit to do so, Yap said. For manned aircraft, the lowest they can fly is 500 feet in a rural area and 1,000 feet in a more urban setting.

The next frontier in the industry, according to Smith, is Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS).

“The FAA has started to get out of its own way and has listened to the industry,” Smith said. “I am extremely hopeful for BVLOS testing. Right now, we are limited to flying our drone as far as we can see with our eyes and no farther. This really limits our coverage area and adds time collecting data.

“BVLOS will allow drones to go for hundreds of miles using a drone-specific network for guidance. We could deliver medicine to remote areas, scan large acreage of oil pipelines or scan miles of transmission lines. The possibilities are endless if we are allowed to fly beyond line of site.”


Only one commercial drone operator — PrecisionHawk — is currently allowed to fly beyond the visual line of sight.

Providing that opportunity to other drone operators would be a huge boom to the industry, according to Thomas Haun, executive vice president of Raleigh-based PrecisionHawk.

“Moving from a visual line of sight realm to beyond a visual line of sight realm does many things,” Huan said. “At a minimum, it increases efficiency. But I think it unlocks other uses for drones that aren’t available today. It’s tremendously powerful and it’s going to be the next large step from a regulatory perspective for the drone industry in the United States.”

Haun offered a baseball analogy related to where the drone industry stands in its potential lifespan: “We are in the first out of the first inning.”

“And I say that being specific to the commercial drone industry. Using drones for personal use and in military applications have been around for a least a couple decades. But from a regulatory perspective, until about six months ago, it was pretty much illegal to operate a commercial drone,” Haun said. “Until August of last year, you had to go through a pretty complex system to get an exception to the law to operate a commercial drone. With Part 107 coming out, that all changed. It was a huge step change for the industry. But it’s very early.”

Part 107 is the section of FAA rules that apply to non-hobbyist small unmanned aircraft operations, covering drones less than 55 pounds.

PrecisionHawk, which was founded in 2010, started its commercial drone applications in the agriculture space, which continues to be a popular service for clients today, both in and outside of North Carolina.

“PrecisionHawk has been in the commercial drone space as long as anyone and is regarded as a thought leader in a lot of ways. We started in agriculture and have expanded to energy, construction, property and casualty insurance — any type of serving application. If you think about North Carolina, in particular, it’s an agricultural state, but there’s also a lot of industry.”

PrecisionHawk moved its headquarters to Raleigh in 2012, at least in part, to tap into the talent pipeline in the Oak City and surrounding areas.

“Obviously, talent is a huge driver for us,” Haun said. “We have grown the company many, many fold since launching so we need a strong pipeline of technical talent, and the university system here and the general Raleigh population has really provided that. The Triangle, as a whole, has really become the tech hub of the Southeast.”

What’s beyond visual line of sight?

“PrecisionHawk believes that drones will be able to capture a tremendously large amount of data and new set of data when you’re using it as a commercial tool," Haun said. "We focus on how to make sense of that data because it will be a new type of data. When we talk about beyond visual line of sight flight, we are charting new waters and PrecisionHawk’s focus is to allow large companies and small companies to be able to do that as easily as possible leveraging that technology.

“That’s our focus and our mission: To be able to make incorporating drones into your work flow a straightforward and non-complicated thing.”

April 10, 2017 - 11:23am