State Politics

North Carolina moves on law to launch drones

An aerial drone with a small gimbal-mounted video camera.
An aerial drone with a small gimbal-mounted video camera. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Local and state agencies will be able to start flying drone aircraft under legislation that moved a step closer Thursday to becoming law.

The legislation would also help pave the way for civilian drones that will require state permits paired with licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is developing guidelines to allow commercial drone use nationwide.

The House approved Senate Bill 446 by 106-4 and sent it back to the Senate for concurrence on minor amendments.

The measure would relax a law that, except in limited cases, bars government agencies from flying unmanned aircraft and using them to gather information about people. It would broaden the state chief information officer’s authority to approve government use of drones for purposes that may include law enforcement, emergency management, environmental regulation and scientific research.

Small unmanned aircraft, fitted with cameras and other sensors, are expected in coming years to find wide civilian applications across the nation – including agriculture, real estate, filmmaking and hobbyist use.

But excitement about the technology’s value has been tempered by worry about dangers and abuses that could include everything from invasion of privacy to collision with commercial airliners. So most public and private drone use has been banned while the FAA works out the rules.

650 illegal drone sightings reported by commercial pilots this year

238 illegal drone sightings in all of 2014

The FAA said Thursday that commercial pilots have reported 650 illegal drone sightings so far this year, compared with 238 sightings in all of 2014. On Sunday, the crew of a Shuttle America flight from Philadelphia to Raleigh-Durham International Airport spotted a drone 15 miles east of RDU, at an altitude of 8,000 feet.

Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican helping to lead the state’s effort to develop drone guidelines, said state agencies are planning an educational campaign to tell North Carolinians about the dos and don’ts of laws regulating unmanned aircraft.

Hazards and abuses

“We do have strong laws,” Torbett said on the House floor, citing examples of misdemeanors and felonies.

“There’s a $5,000 fine for a photo taken by (a drone) without the permission of the person that’s in the photograph,” Torbett said. “People operating these could actually commit an act of terror under federal law, or an act of terror under North Carolina law.”

Farmers are expected to be among the first big users of drone technology. With small aircraft that can fly low over a field, they’ll be able to learn more about the crop’s changing needs for water, nutrients and pesticides.

“Now they will be able to pinpoint, say, an outbreak of black mold,” Torbett said. “You can pinpoint where it is starting to emerge and treat the mold in one spot, rather than pay someone to come out and spray 3,000 acres.”

Bobby Walston, the state Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation director, said he expects the FAA to begin licensing drone operators in the next year or two.

One provision in the new legislation gets rid of a problem created in a 2013 state law that made DOT responsible for issuing licenses to drone pilots after evaluating their skills. That was more than state officials thought they could do, and it was outside their authority since the federal government regulates the nation’s airspace.

Instead, DOT will be ready to issue simpler permits to let state and local agencies and FAA-licensed drone users operate in North Carolina. They’ll be tested only on their knowledge of drone laws and regulations.

“We’re developing a knowledge test,” Walston said. “But for me to assess you and your skills in flying a drone, that doesn’t make sense.”

Waiting for the FAA

The new state legislation requires DOT to be ready to issue state permits for drone operators within 60 days after the FAA starts issuing licenses. While other states wait to see what the FAA comes up with, Walston said, North Carolina is moving now to develop regulations that eventually will complement federal rules.

A spokeswoman for a Raleigh-based unmanned aircraft technology company agreed.

“North Carolina has been a leader as far as states go in terms of drone laws, and there have been universities here pursuing drone research from the beginning,” said Lia Reich of PrecisionHawk. “That’s one reason we set up our headquarters here in North Carolina.”

Bruce Siceloff: 919-829-4527, @Road_Worrier