Under the Dome

NC study group recommends using drones for ag research, rescue missions

State and local government agencies in North Carolina should be allowed to fly drones for various purposes, from search and rescue missions to agricultural research, a study group examining the issue recommends in a new report.

Chris Estes, the state chief information officer, presented the 26-page report to state lawmakers Thursday. It was compiled by a group led by the CIO's office and the N.C. Department of Transportation that included representatives from local governments, state agencies and universities.

Other potential government uses for unmanned aircraft systems, commonly called drones, include emergency responses, surveying and mapping, wildlife and infrastructure monitoring, firefighting support and natural disaster assessment, according to the report. The report suggests that the departments of Transportation, Environment and Natural Resources, Public Safety, Commerce and Agriculture and Consumer Services could all benefit from drone use, along with local law enforcement agencies and colleges and universities.

"UAS is a promising innovation that has the potential to help government work more efficiently and bring jobs to North Carolina," Estes said.

The group looked at potential uses for drones, along with safety, privacy, data management, costs and funding considerations as directed by the General Assembly in the current state budget. Its report also proposes the formation of a statewide governance board – with agency representatives and legislative and gubernatorial appointees – to guide the state's adoption of the technology.

The acquisition and operation of drones by state and local governments is currently prohibited in North Carolina unless a special exemption is obtained from the state chief information officer. In 2013, the CIO approved a test program by the NextGen Air Transportation Center at N.C. State University, which is doing research at three locations in the state.

"We recommend that the state build on the success of its UAS test program while addressing the privacy and safety issues that surround any developing technology," Estes said.

The report comes as a special legislative committee is examining the drone issue and may recommend legislation in advance of the 2014 legislative short session, which begins in May. The House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems meets March 17 in Raleigh and will hear a presentation on the report.