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 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.