A recent economic development trip to the Unmanned Systems Conference hosted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) confirmed what area aviation leaders already know – remotely-piloted aircraft, or RPAs, have the potential to open bold new aviation opportunities for northeastern North Carolina.
Traditionally associated with military applications, RPA technology is expanding into a variety of non-military fields, including agriculture, disaster planning and response, wildfire detection and weather data collection.
A highlight of the conference, held in Las Vegas in August, was the debut of the smaller aerial vehicles that could be used for such applications. Procerus Technologies demonstrated its Quad VTOL (vehicle take off and landing) drone to a rapt audience. Small enough to fold up and pack in a suitcase, the sleek VTOL features a camera positioned on a pivotal support, allowing the lens to stay focused on an object while the drone stays in motion.
“Think of how RPAs could aid with search-and-rescue operations in particular,” said ECPCEDC Director Wayne Harris, who attended the conference under the auspices of the North Carolina’s Northeast Commission.
The launch of such technology comes at a unique time for North Carolina – and the state’s northeast region.
In early May, the North Carolina State University’s (NCSU) Institute for Transportation Research and Education (ITRE) announced the hiring of Kyle T. Snyder as the first permanent director for the NextGen Air Transportation Center. Snyder, described by many as one of the rock stars of unmanned flight, comes to the Center from Middle Tennessee State University, where he managed that school’s Unmanned Air Systems program.
A month later, the N.C. Department of Transportation, NCSU and other partners announced a plan to establish a remotely-piloted aircraft field at nearby Hyde County Airport, less than a two hour’s drive from Elizabeth City. The site would provide a central East Coast location for private companies and university researchers to test new technology, while benefiting northeast North Carolina on many levels.
The region boasts an aviation-savvy workforce and has shovel-ready space available at the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Aviation Research and Development Commerce Park, making it a magnet for companies involved in RPA manufacture and research.
Elizabeth City State University’s School of Aviation Science and College of the Albemarle’s Aviation Technical and Training Center in nearby Currituck County provide education, research and training opportunities.
In addition, Elizabeth City is already home to a host of aviation companies, including DRS Technologies, TCOM, L.P., and Telephonics, with expertise in fields central to RPA.
“It’s almost impossible to overstate the economic potential of RPAs’ civilian field applications,” Harris said. “RPAs can do almost anything a conventional aircraft can do more safely, more efficiently, more precisely and at a fraction of the cost. Their impact will be on a par with the leap from mule-drawn plows and wagons to tractors and combines.”