Can a tiny flying sensor tell farmers if they have a sick animal? Can a drone fly ahead of speeding trains to prevent accidents? It would sound like science fiction if it weren’t already happening in Raleigh.
For most, the word “drone” has connotations of distant battlefields and secret technologies. But organizations like PrecisionHawk and NC State’s NextGen Air are working against that stereotype as they develop practical uses for drones—or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) as they prefer to call them—building machines that can one day do everything from assisting emergency crews during crises to delivering groceries to a consumer’s doorstep, and they’re creating plenty of funding and job potential along the way.
PrecisionHawk, headquartered in Raleigh but with offices in Indiana and Canada, has made headlines for over $11 million raised in venture capital from players such as Intel and Bob Young, founder of Red Hat. It also has exclusive licenses and research & development exemptions from the FAA. The company’s director of business development, Tyler Collins, spoke at the John Locke Foundation in downtown Raleigh early in June about the future of drones in North Carolina and globally. “We’re proving drones aren’t just for military applications,” he said.
NextGen Air Transportation, an NC State program launched in 2012 by the NCDOT Division of Aviation, was selected in May to become part of the FAA’s Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which will be at the forefront of the federal government's efforts to create symmetry between unmanned aircraft and manned flight control stations.
Kyle Snyder, NGAT’s director, answered over email about the wide-ranging effects drones could have on day-to-day life in coming years. “The NOAA, NASA, and other research organizations are already flying missions for public value like over hurricanes, around tornadoes, over wildfires, and we’re better understanding weather behavior to improve storm tracking and models. [Commercial licenses] should be released by the FAA in the next 12-24 months...Package delivery and routine operations that are truly remotely operated are still a ways off, but they are coming.”
Thanks to their unique positions and development with the FAA and government agencies, PrecisionHawk and NC State’s NGAT are both poised to become major players in the growing UAS industry, which is expected to balloon to over 30,000 unmanned flights in the air at any given time by 2020 according to the FAA, and drive billions of dollars of economic growth and innovation in the areas where it takes root.
Collins’ speech at the John Locke Foundation was symbolic of an issue within the industry itself, as public relations is a major part of any UAS organization both in assuaging the fears of a public increasingly wary of privacy issues and invasive technology, and working with state, local and federal governments to keep drones relatively legal enough for continued development.
The FAA has been quick to ban drones for commercial use (though companies can apply for exemptions), and slow to reinstate comprehensive new laws (expected in 2017). But according to Collins, the agency has actually been very supportive of the burgeoning industry’s development. Or at least, as supportive as it can be.
“They’re bound to move slowly by their processes that have been in place for years,” he says, “but they’re moving as fast as they possibly can and they’ve even been pushing us to move faster along with them. They’re constantly asking for data we’ve collected and incorporating our real world experience into what they’re doing.”
Manager of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, Jim Williams, has been very progressive in his programs and work with the company, Collins said.
PrecisionHawk has worked closely with the FAA throughout the procedures, and NGAT’s Snyder is quick to speak to how important this relationship is between the government and businesses.
“The FAA knows the business case and reasons for providing commercial access to these tools. Selecting [research universities] to lead the UAS Center of Excellence was a strong sign that the FAA knows the challenges facing this industry over the next 5-10 years,” Snyder wrote.
Both Collins and Snyder are generally happy with legal, legislative and regulatory outcomes overall, with Snyder going so far as to state that the North Carolina government “has been a catalyst supporting the growth of the industry.”
This relationship with the government has paid off. Along with NGAT’s unique position with the FAA and UAS Center for Excellence, PrecisionHawk is one of a few commercial enterprises approved to test drones and one of only two in the entire country (along with Warren Buffett’s BNSF Railway) approved for testing what’s called “beyond-line-of-sight” flight, which involves flying out of range of where the pilot or operator can physically see the aircraft.
It’s with beyond-line-of-sight flight where unmanned operations start to get really, really useful, according to Collins, who is doing groundbreaking work with both large and small-scale farming with PrecisionHawk’s Lancaster platform.
A fixed-wing aircraft, the Lancaster can fly over acres of farmland in minutes and send back a staggering amount of data and detailed geological information. The Lancaster isn’t particularly special in its ability to fly but with its impressive array of sensors and data collectors (hence the “platform” term, as it can be used for many types of data and systems). It’s estimated that data from PrecisionHawk could help farmers cut their pesticide and fuel usage in half by more efficiently, accurately and quickly assessing what crops need than what is possible with conventional means (conventional means would be a farmer going and looking for him or herself).
PrecisionHawk’s drones can fly around crops and, with their embedded sensors and cameras, determine whether fruits or vegetables are ripe, or how much water they might need. Some of it outright sounds like it was ripped from a sci-fi movie: PrecisionHawk’s drones can take a quick flight and determine if a member of a farmer’s livestock has a fever, based on the temperature variations in the flock, which it reads instantly from the sky. Or, they can automatically send detailed directions to tractors and machines, eliminating humans from the process almost entirely.
Here, Snyder thinks drones will make their mark with data, or “1s and 0s people” as he says. “Civil engineering firms that survey properties, real estate, photography, construction, marine sciences, agriculture (imaging and aerial application) services—these are just a handful of the applications that commercial UAS are changing or will create in the near future.”
Drones in these sectors could affect society enormously in the years to come, and it’s why over $82 billion and 100,000 jobs are expected to flow into the UAS industry in the next decade according to estimates by the The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Snyder thinks the possibilities for North Carolina are endless, both for business growth, and enhancements to public welfare—the state can use UAS for public safety and transportation improvements, responding to accidents, performing infrastructure inspections, assessing storm damage, etc. Manufacturers, resellers, and maintenance companies will also emerge as demand grows.
The state is also positioning itself as a leader in education in the field.
“Students trained in autonomous systems (mechanical, aerospace, electrical engineering or computer science) are prepared for a wide range of modern, well-paying careers,” Snyder says. “Students trained in GIS, remote sensing, image analysis, etc are positioned for many emerging jobs in data analysis, surveying, and other on-demand careers.”
NGAT has earned over $5 million in funding from the FAA as part of the ASSURE program and UAS Center for Excellence.
$172 million dollars have been invested in drones already in 2015, more than the entire three years prior. DJI Innovations, a large Chinese firm, has been recently valued at $10 billion dollars.
Collins believes that by having a foot-in-the-door with local firms like PrecisionHawk and programs like NGAT at NC State, North Carolina is more likely to develop similar laws and standards to federal models, increasing the attractiveness of the state to future investors.
These are the reason why Collins spoke at the John Locke Foundation last week, to make the public aware of the work PrecisionHawk is doing and the benefits the industry can bring into the state. Collins wants to help industries and the public sector become safer and more efficient, and show that drones aren’t just a toy for consumers or for military training, but a job creator and tool for public safety and environmental preservation.
“The UAS industry is growing in every direction, and the UAS community in North Carolina prepares the state for many opportunities,” he says. “UAS are making aviation an everyday event without having to visit an airport to experience it.”