UAV Takeoff at NCSU

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Crops, soil, livestock and insects are the typical research subjects within NC State University's acres of fields along Lake Wheeler Road.

But a different kind of experiment happened there yesterday, involving one of the smallest, fastest, smartest, most powerful and yet, mysterious, aircraft in the world.

Some might call it a drone, but the team hoping to make a consortium of NC State and 12 other universities a Federal Aviation Administration Center of Excellence prefer "unmanned aerial vehicle (or system)." 

Simply defined, it's an aircraft that doesn't require a pilot. And after watching yesterday's launch of a 5.5-pound aircraft from a pulley system (or "launcher"), its 10-minute flight about 250 feet in the air while collecting real-time data and taking 100 images of the terrain, its landing in the middle of a field and the many checks and balances before and after launch, it seems harmless enough. But the issues surrounding UAVs are much more complex, touching everything from public and personal safety to privacy and security to legality and insurance.

NC State's NextGen Air Transportation program held a demonstration in January 2015 of the unmanned aerial systems it is testing and experimenting with at farms and sites across North Carolina. Credit: Ryan Timms/ExitEvent

The UAS opportunity

Thursday's UAV launch by the California manufacturer Trimble was meant to demonstrate to media and other university partners how unmanned aerial systems work and to emphasize the university's mission to ensure UAVs—once widely approved for commercial use by the FAA—enter the airspace as safely and seamlessly as possible. NC State is leading that charge as part of the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (or ASSURE), one of at least four national groups vying to be the Center of Excellence for UAS research and receive five years of funding from the U.S. government. An announcement is expected in April. According to the NC State group (NextGen Air Transportation or NGAT), it would "put the UNC system at the cutting edge of UAS integration research and position North Carolina to benefit from related economic development." 

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International reports that the new industry could create 1,200 jobs in the state of North Carolina and pump $600 million into our economy. This is already playing out on a small scale as Raleigh UAV startup PrecisionHawk, now with $11 million in venture capital, grows its team and begins to ship its vehicles around the world and players like Bangkok, Thailand-based Olaeris and Virginia's Digital Harvest consider moves to the state (though Olaeris has since threatened to back out).

Besides that, drones promise to make it quick and easy to deliver food or medicine to rural or impoverished communities, to collect data that ensures soil is right for growing and crops are well-watered and cared-for (as the Trimble vehicle will do), to help public safety departments determine the seriousness of car accidents or crime scenes, and to survey buildings, bridges and other infrastructure as they are built or maintained.

Trimble's homeland security group, present at the demonstration, is exploring use after hurricanes, earthquakes or wild fires to locate missing persons or assess damage, said Craig Mix, director of homeland security at Trimble Navigation. It is one of just eight companies around the nation granted exemption from the existing FAA rules, allowing it to operate UAVs commercially within the U.S.

Trimble UAV in Box

How NC is taking advantage

The North Carolina legislature has positioned itself to take advantage of the opportunities, in 2013 authorizing a committee to study the safety and privacy of citizens while also exploring its economic potential and how UAS might be governed. In a March 2014 report to the General Assembly, the group determined that state and local governments should use UAVs, and a 2014 House Bill suggested rules for private (non-commercial) use, some of which have already gone into effect. But NC State's NextGen Air Transportation Group is the key effort to making the state an industry leader.

The man behind it is Kyle Snyder, hired in 2012 by NC State to relaunch the group (formed in 2008) as a partnership between academia and industry. Snyder previously ran the UAS program at Middle Tennessee State University and before that, worked for the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. A High Point native and NC State graduate, he was eager to come back home. North Carolina also provided the fertile ground to build a UAS program.

"There's every environment to test in except for deserts," he told me when we first met late last year. There's also a wealth of talent in aviation, farming, software and electronics engineering and manufacturing. The universities have programs to educate the next generation of the workforce. "The supply chain is already here. Let's turn it on," he said.

Kyle Snyder of NCSU NGAT
Kyle Snyder is director of the NextGen Air Transportation Group at NC State University, and leading the charge to make North Carolina a leader in the burgeoning unmanned aerial systems industry.

NC State is already approved to fly UAVs in six locations around the state. There's the Butner Beef Cattle Field Lab, Hyde County Airport, a 6,000-acre farm in Moyock, NC, the Green Swamp Preserve south east of Wilmington, Vernon James Research Center in Plymouth and starting today, Lake Wheeler Farm.

Only members of NGAT can take advantage of the opportunity. They pay $10,000 a year for access. Snyder hopes to get 10 industry partners by the end of 2015. So far, he's signed on PrecisionHawk, Trimble and an agriculture company. FAA Center of Excellence status would likely help.

In the meantime, Snyder is clearly giddy over the new Trimble aircraft. He told me his team would "fly the wings off of it."

"It's a robust, reliable, rugged platform with a full product suite that supports many applications," Snyder said. 

He'll give it as much flight time as possible to prove both its data collection abilities and its safety record. That's the goal, after all, to realize all the benefits of UAV technology for society and business while ensuring no one gets hurt or violated in the process.