First in drones? NC hopes remote-aircraft industry takes flight

Proposed Hyde County test range for unmanned aircraft could bring jobs, business innovations

mquillin@newsobserver.comJune 24, 2012 

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.

Possible uses of remote planes and helicopters, which can cost from $20,000 into the millions of dollars each, are still being imagined.

“I can hardly think of a single industry where there wouldn’t be a use for these aircraft,” Snyder said. “If you’re an accountant, I probably can’t help you with a little helicopter. But anybody else, I look forward to talking to you about a business application.”

The technology of the aircraft is generally considered well established, though improvements continue to be made in battery life and capacity so that unmanned planes can stay in the air longer and carry heavier or more sophisticated payloads. Current research is focused on the systems the aircraft take up with them, such as digital and infrared cameras.

Civilian uses of the craft could include search-and-rescue over water, in wildernesses or in collapsed buildings; land surveying; post-disaster damage assessment; crop evaluation; forest fire spotting; livestock observation; and power-line trouble detection.

The proposed site

Richard Walls, aviation director at N.C. DOT, said the range is essentially “a box in the sky” where the planes could maneuver. This one, still being drawn, might be a rectangle as large as 5 miles by 2 miles, encompassing the Engelhard Airport. Remote aircraft generally fly below 1,000 feet, and when the range is in use, spotters would be on the ground to make sure the craft stay in view at all times. Companies or others renting the range would work with the airport to prevent conflicts with general aviation planes.

Proponents of the test range say it would allow the industry to grow within the state and could draw companies from outside that don’t have another place to test their gear. It could also benefit students in aeronautics, engineering and aviation at N.C. State, Elizabeth City State University and other schools.

“The potential is just unlimited,” said Mazie Swindell-Smith, manager of Hyde County, whose commissioners have endorsed the idea.

Along the Pamlico Sound in the northeastern part of the state, Hyde is one of North Carolina’s least populated and poorer counties. It has just 5,800 residents, most of them supported by commercial fishing, farming or timber production. Its county-owned airport is the least traveled in the state, though traffic picks up a bit as sportsmen come in when the fish are biting and ducks are on the wing.

Those who use the Engelhard Airport are accustomed to air-space restrictions. The airport, off U.S. 264, has three national wildlife refuges as neighbors, including 52,000-acre Lake Mattamuskeet, along with a Navy bombing range.

The buzz in Hyde County

There has been no opposition to the plan locally, Swindell-Smith said. Elsewhere, the American Civil Liberties Union and others have expressed privacy concerns about aircraft equipped with such sophisticated cameras cruising above their heads.

The FAA’s primary concern is safety, making sure the introduction of a new class of aircraft into the skies doesn’t create problems.

The state plans to apply to the FAA by September to create the test range. Under pressure from Congress to create a set of rules for unmanned aircraft to enter the open skies, the FAA has said it will designate its six test sites by the end of the year. Snyder said industry observers expect it will be at least two years after that before the rules are completed.

Whatever economic opportunity it presents, Swindell-Smith hopes for another windfall from the emerging remote-piloted aircraft industry. It has to do with a persistent problem in her watery home county besides poverty.

“I’d love to see somebody develop a better application for spraying mosquitoes.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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