NCDOT Creates One-Stop Shop for NC Drone Operators

Caldwell Journal


As drones become more common in American households and businesses, the N.C. Department of Transportation is working to help promote safety on the air and on the ground by educating drone operators in our state.

Drones, also called Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), offer a wide variety of uses – from tech-loving hobbyists to professional photographers, university researchers, agricultural operations and government organizations.

Both the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the NCDOT Division of Aviation classify UAS flight operations by three categories:

  • Recreational – Any UAS flight that is conducted solely for recreation.
  • Government – Any UAS flight conducted by a government entity to support their work.
  • Commercial – Any UAS flight that serves a business purpose or provides a business benefit, even if that benefit is indirect.At the direction of the North Carolina General Assembly, NCDOT launched a permitting system for commercial and government UAS operators in North Carolina. The system is designed to help UAS owners better understand restrictions on the use of their technology through a simple and efficient online process.

    Starting January 2016, all government and commercial UAS operators must obtain a permit fromNCDOT’s Division of Aviation.

    “This permitting process will help educate UAS owners,” said N.C. Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson. “We want to encourage safe and responsible drone operations in North Carolina.”

    To obtain a permit, users must first pass the North Carolina UAS Operators Knowledge Test. A guide is available to help users study before taking the test.

    In addition to passing the Knowledge Test, users must meet certain FAA requirements to obtain a commercial or government operator permit in North Carolina. The full requirements are available on the Division of Aviation website (

    Operators who meet all requirements will receive a paper permit, similar to a driver license, that they will be required to keep with them while conducting commercial or government UAS operations.

    Recreational users are not required to complete the permit process, but are strongly encouraged to review the study guide and take the Knowledge Test to better understand UAS regulations in North Carolina.

    UAS operators, whether recreational, government or commercial, should keep in mind that North Carolina has laws governing drone use. Drone users are subject to all North Carolina laws, even if UAS technology is not mentioned in the specific statute.

    UAS owners must also register drones weighing between 0.55 lbs. and 55 lbs. with the FAA. More information about registration is available on the FAA’s UAS website (

    Current and potential drone owners can find more information about state and federal UAS regulations on the Division of Aviation’s website.

First in Drones? NC Prepares for Boom in Unmanned Flight

By American Homefront Project

The state that boasts of being “First in Flight” is preparing for another major aviation development – an expected surge in unmanned flight.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation has hired its first official to oversee the regulation of drones. The department also is developing a test that by the end of the year will be mandatory for people who want to operate commercial and government drones.

Meanwhile, a center based at North Carolina State University is working with researchers, government agencies, and private companies that want to use drones in their work.

The preparations come as the Federal Aviation Administration readies new regulations that are expected to open the nation’s skies to commercial drones sometime in the next year.

“When the final rule is made into law, we will see tremendous growth,” said Thomas Haun, the Vice President of Strategy for Raleigh-based PrecisionHawk. The company makes drones, but focuses on sophisticated analysis of the data they gather.

PrecisionHawk is developing drone-based systems that it hopes will help farmers monitor pests and diseases, boost harvest size, and use less seed, herbicides, and pesticides. It also works with insurance and energy companies. It has been working closely  with N.C. State’s NextGen Air Transportation Center (NGAT), which helps it test its drones in the field.

“The market opportunity for UAVs is quite large,” Haun said. “There are estimates that the United States is in the hundreds of billions of dollars of market size in the future.”

A toy-like plane with serious uses

NGAT conducts flight tests almost every day on what it calls “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or UAVs. Using a rubber strap, the drone operators yank the toy-like, foam winged plane up a ramp and into the sky.

At a Wake County cornfield, NGAT Director Kyle Snyder watched as the drone made a recent test flight.  It passed methodically back and forth over the field, snapping photos. His group has special federal permits to use several test sites around the state. It’s collecting both flight safety data for the FAA and agricultural information for farmers.

“The flight data looking at the crops, we’re sharing that with our industry partners,” Synder said. “We’ve got one of our ag partners here today that’s looking at yield predictions for corn.”

Farmers are one of many groups eager to use drones. The state government also wants them for road surveys and bridge inspections. And at least one North Carolina town plans to use them to monitor construction projects.

Soon, they should all be able to fly without special permission, when the federal and state governments end their moratoriums on most commercial and government drone flights.

The state is rolling out a permit system, including the mandatory test for commercial and government fliers.

Chris Gibson, the new DOT drone officer, stressed the online test is not designed to assess flying skills, and he said recreational fliers won’t have to take it. Rather, he said the exam is designed to ensure operators know the laws that apply to unmanned aerial vehicles.

“If there’s a law on the books that specifies something as a crime, just because you use a UAV to do the same type of thing doesn’t mean that all of a sudden it’s not a crime, “Gibson said.

“So, we have Peeping Tom laws for example. You can’t go looking in your neighbors’ windows. Well, you can’t do that with a UAV either.”

Still, some experts say drones likely will raise some unforeseen issues and require additional laws.

“As the technology improves, they could get smaller and smaller and therefore less and less noticeable, said Sarah Preston of the ACLU of North Carolina. “Whereas you would maybe notice a helicopter hovering over your property for a period of time while pictures are being taken or video or whatever, you’re less likely to notice something that’s maybe the size of a bird and that doesn’t make a lot of noise.”

Preston said North Carolina’s drone law, which went into effect last year, allows law enforcement agencies to fly drones over public gatherings, even on private property. She says they could even use facial recognition technology to identify people at a political meeting. Or even a neighborhood barbecue.

“I think there’s a lot to it that people are not necessarily thinking through,” Preston said.

A birds eye view for local governments

Law enforcement is only part of what local governments are planning to do with drones. And just a small part for some of them.

A couple of years ago, the Town of Mooresville bought a small hovering drone for about $1,000.

It wanted aerial images of renovations to a town golf course for its web site. Before long, the town was using it to get crowd counts at street fairs.

Now, Town Manager Erskine Smith envisions using it to find lost people, give firefighters a birdseye view of fires, and help citizens track public works projects.

“This is certainly an easy way to allow people to understand that you’re going to build a road connecting from here to here,” Smith said. “They can actually see it and visualize it, and get an idea of ‘Oh, yeah, now I know what they’re talking about.’”

Mooresville had to mothball its drone because the state put a temporary moratorium on their use by local governments. That will end after the state permits are available and the FAA implements its regulations. But the town found the drone so useful that it applied for special permission to get back in the air sooner.

“It’s a very inexpensive tool that, you know, they always say a picture is worth a thousand words,” Smith said.

FAA unveils proposed rules for drones

GA advocates seek UAS rulesThe FAA has announced a proposed rule governing the use of commercial small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) that would address many of AOPA’s concerns, including setting certification requirements for operators and requiring see-and-avoid capabilities. The rule affects UAS weighing 55 pounds or less that are flown for non-recreational purposes.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced details of the proposed rule during an unusual Sunday news conference on Feb. 15. Under the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), small UAS would be required to “see and avoid” other aircraft, giving right of way to manned aircraft.

They also would be limited to daylight, line-of-sight operations with a least 3 statute miles visibility at speeds of less than 100 mph and altitudes below 500 feet. The UAS would not be allowed to operate over people, except those involved in the flight. They would be required to remain outside of Class A airspace and at least 500 feet below clouds and 2,000 feet from them horizontally. Operations in Class B, C, and D airspace, as well as within the lateral boundaries of the surface area of Class E airspace, can be allowed with prior permission from air traffic control.

The NPRM also sets certification requirements for small UAS operators, requiring them to be at least 17 years of age, pass an FAA-administered knowledge test every two years, and obtain an FAA-issued UAS Operator Certificate with a small UAS rating.

While the FAA will not require the aircraft themselves to be certified, it will require them to obtain an FAA registration and display an N-number. Operators must also conduct preflight safety inspections before each flight.

“Safety is our biggest concern when it comes to integrating unmanned aircraft into the airspace system,” said AOPA President Mark Baker. “Clear guidance for UAS operations is needed to protect pilots and passengers. We’re pleased that the FAA is moving the rulemaking process forward, but this really can’t happen fast enough.”

Privacy issues also have been a concern when it comes to small UAS operations, but the FAA’s NPRM does not address those issues. Instead, the FAA has said the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will engage with the FAA and stakeholders to address privacy issues.

In the meantime, the White House issued a presidential memorandum dealing with drone privacy issues shortly before the FAA’s Feb. 15 announcement. The memo requires federal agencies to make their policies and procedures consistent with limits on data collection and use as well as the retention and dissemination of information collected by drones. It also gives the NTIA and Commerce Department 90 days to create a “framework for privacy, accountability and transparency.”

In announcing the new rules for small commercial drones, the FAA said it would seek input on whether to create a subset of rules for so-called “microlight” UAS weighing 4.4 pounds or less. The FAA suggested those aircraft might not require a UAS operator certificate but could be restricted to daytime line-of-site operations at altitudes of 400 feet or lower in Class G airspace. Those requirements are not part of the current proposed rule.

The agency is also seeking input on how the agency can further leverage the UAS test site program as well as plans for a UAS Center of Excellence designed to spur innovation.

The publication of the NPRM opens the way for the public to review and comment on the proposal, and AOPA will file formal comments in advance of the deadline set for 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register.

AOPA has long expressed concerns about safely integrating unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System, insisting that commercial UAS be flown by an FAA-approved pilot or operator, have see-and-avoid capabilities, and be flown in compliance with current operating rules and airspace requirements.

In December 2014, Baker asked the House Aviation Subcommittee to reinforce the need for the FAA to expedite the rule governing commercial UAS operations and to address the reckless and careless operation of recreational UAS. In 2014, the FAA received nearly 200 pilot reports describing encounters with unmanned aircraft.

While the NPRM does not address recreational UAS operations, AOPA has asked the FAA to issue clear and definitive guidance for recreational operators, encourage manufacturers to include information on FAA guidance in their packaging materials, work with AOPA and remote control aircraft groups to conduct educational outreach, and publish guidance to help pilots file timely reports of reckless UAS operations.

Drones take flight over North Carolina

By Shumuriel Ratlif

(WNCN) The first commercial drone approved by the Federal Aviation Administration for testing in North Carolina took to the skies near Raleigh on Thursday.

The Trimble UX5 weighs a little more than five pounds, but don’t let it’s size fool you. It can do a lot of work once it’s in flight.

“The aircraft itself is electric. It’s battery powered and it can fly for up to 50 minutes, and in that time you can get approximately one thousand depending on how high you fly and what the conditions are,” explains Trimble engineer Chip Berniard.

Thursday’s research flight showed the $50,000 dollar drone in action.  Click here for video

It will be use for agricultural research at North Carolina State University, and will be used by the North Carolina Department of Transportation as well.

“Some of the research we are going to start doing this summer is looking at infrastructure and landslides investigations that a DOT field agent would do,” says NC State’s Kyle Snyder.

Officials say there’s no cause for concern when you see this drone flying in the fields.

“We’re not a hobbyist we are doing research operations for the good of the state. That’s why we’re working with these different agencies, working with these industry partners that want to grow,” Snyder explains.



North Carolina Not Waiting on FAA to Explore Commercial Drone Use


The state-funded NextGen Air Transportation office at N.C. State University plans to apply for special FAA permission to start drone experiments for the state Department of Transportation.

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to issue long-awaited draft regulations for operating small commercial drones this year, something that’s expected to open the skies to a multibillion-dollar industry.

President Barack Obama called for drone regulations this week after one landed, apparently by accident, on the White House lawn.

But with experts saying new rules for civilian use are still probably months or even years away, North Carolina’s nascent drone industry and state government agencies that are eager to use the aircraft aren’t waiting.

In coming days, the state-funded NextGen Air Transportation office at N.C. State University plans to apply for special FAA permission to start drone experiments for the state Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile, one of the state’s largest drone companies, Raleigh-based PrecisionHawk, is expecting its own FAA exemption in the next few weeks so that it can begin commercial operations across the United States.

NGAT, which has been investigating various aspects of drone use at several sites around the state, will demonstrate its newest aircraft Thursday for state officials and members of the media at an N.C. State University farm off Lake Wheeler Road. That particular aircraft is mainly aimed at agricultural use, said the office’s director, Kyle Snyder.

By late spring, NGAT expects to receive the aircraft it will use for the DOT experiments, Snyder said.

The highway department is keen to evaluate several jobs it thinks drones could do well, said Bobby Walston, aviation director for DOT. Among those are investigating routes for new roads and inspecting bridges, construction sites and rock slides.

Other state agencies will be keeping a close eye on the work, too, Snyder said, including the Division of Emergency Management, which could use drones for evaluating damage in disasters and for search and rescue.

A bigger question is probably which state agency, if any, would not have a proper use for a drone, said state Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican who helped craft a state drone law approved last year that addressed privacy issues among other things.

“We can all understand the potential for law enforcement, and we could really save taxpayer dollars with bridge inspection,” said Torbett, who will attend the demonstration flight Thursday. “I doubt that there is a state agency – except maybe treasurer – that won’t have an opportunity to apply the technology and do it in a very cost-effective way.”

Given that it’s impossible to even guess at the range of applications for drones, the economic potential they represent here, both for drone users and companies that are involved in creating them, is unknowable but huge, Torbett said.

PrecisionHawk is already doing business in Canada, Great Britain, Australia and Latin America. It’s beginning to do more work on applications across a range of industries, including oil and gas, insurance, geology and mining and search and rescue, but its main focus has been agriculture.

PrecisionHawk sells its basic aircraft for about $16,000, but it essentially considers itself a data company, said spokeswoman Lia Reich.

That’s probably not surprising, given that the company has close ties to more traditional tech outfits. PrecisionHawk got a $10 million influx of cash this fall from a group of investors that included Bob Young, co-founder of the Red Hat software company, who sits on its board of directors.

The drone – which has a fuselage crafted from circuit boards rather than aerospace material – uploads the data it gathers to the cloud, where software developed by PrecisionHawk analyzes it and delivers the results to, say, a farmer’s laptop.

The buzzphrase is “precision agriculture.” Depending on which sensors a drone is configured with, the data it picks up when flying slowly over the farm can determine things such as how much nitrogen should be added to which part of a field or where weeds or disease are popping up, Reich said.

By helping farmers apply only as much nitrogen as a field needs, PrecisionHawk not only saves them money but helps reduce nitrogen runoff into streams and waterways.

Data from the drone also can help boost crop productivity. Just how much is something the company plans to gather more data on this year while working on several North Carolina farms in partnership with NGAT, Reich said.