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NC sees a future in drones for state government use

By Patrick Gannon
pgannon@ncinsider.com

RALEIGH A new state report envisions a future when government agencies fly drones to track suspects, locate missing people, detect disease and insect infestation in crops, assess storm damage and inspect bridges.

It envisions a state-funded drone program and a new state board to regulate the use of the unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS. And it sees all that happening soon.

Legislators have already been discussing drones in committee meetings the past few months. And last week, Chris Estes, the state’s chief information officer, said his office has requested $215,000 in the next state budget to pay for an executive director and data analyst for a UAS governance board.

Lawmakers will debate the budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year, which begins July 1, when they return to Raleigh in May for the legislative short session.

If legislators decide to establish a drone board, it would establish policies for operations, approve or deny requests for use by government agencies and research potential legal and privacy implications. The board also could consider penalties for “rogue” use by government agencies that don’t follow the rules, according to the report.

The 26-page report, which Estes presented to the House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems last week, incorporates input from state agencies and universities, military representatives, Gov. Pat McCrory’s staff and others.

A McCrory spokesman declined to say whether money for a drone board or program would be included in the governor’s proposed spending plan for 2014-15, which he will submit to lawmakers later this spring.

According to the report, a drone program would require a greater outlay of cash: $130,000 a year for data storage and management, about $435,000 a year to operate and maintain the unmanned aircraft, and a potential $850,000 in initial set-up costs, including purchasing the aircraft and related equipment, and hiring a chief pilot and other staff.

Time to capitalize

Under a provision in the current state budget, the purchase or use of drones by state and local governments is prohibited in North Carolina until July 1, 2015, without special permission from the chief information officer.

The CIO has allowed the NextGen Air Transportation Center at N.C. State University to test drones at three locations in the state, but no other government use has been approved. If a drone board is established, it would assume the authority to permit drone flights.

State Rep. Justin Burr, a Stanly County Republican and a chief budget writer in the N.C. House, said last week that he hadn’t heard of the drone board proposal.

“The budget, I expect, like previous years, is going to be tight, and it’s not going to be something high on my list to fund,” he said.

But others more closely involved with the issue say now is the time to put the structure in place for the state to capitalize on a growing industry and allow government agencies to realize the technology’s benefits.

“If we’re going to demonstrate to the industry that North Carolina is open for the UAS business, then we need to make that declaration now, and establishment of the governance board is the way to do that,” said Kyle Snyder, director of the NextGen Air Transportation Center.

Snyder, considered one of the state’s experts on unmanned aircraft, said he hopes government agencies will be flying drones in North Carolina by late this year or early next, for missions such as hurricane response. That, he said, is contingent on lawmakers creating a governance board and funding a program.

Privacy protections needed

North Carolina is far from alone in its drone debate. In 2013, 43 states introduced 130 bills and resolutions addressing UAS issues. By year’s end, 13 states had passed 16 laws regulating their use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many laws focused on when and how law enforcement agencies could use drones in criminal investigations.

In North Carolina, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina is leading the charge for the passage of a law that requires law enforcement agencies to obtain search warrants before using drones to conduct surveillance of residents.

“As more and more law enforcement and government agencies express an interest in drones, we think it’s imperative that North Carolina, like almost a dozen other states, makes sure that privacy is protected,” said Sarah Preston, ACLU policy director.

The ACLU released a poll recently showing that 72 percent of state voters believe government agencies should be required to get warrants before using unmanned aircraft to conduct surveillance of residents.

“We think the public is generally with us,” Preston said.

Snyder said law enforcement officials in the state have decided to wait at least a year before deploying drones for police use to allow for more time to discuss and implement appropriate policies. Other government agencies are ready to use drones as soon as they are allowed.

The state report suggests that the departments of Transportation, Environment and Natural Resources, Public Safety, Commerce, and Agriculture and Consumer Services could all benefit from drone use, along with local law enforcement agencies and colleges and universities.

Mike Sprayberry, the state’s emergency management director, said drones could be used immediately after hurricanes and tornadoes to assess debris, damage to buildings and road conditions – jobs historically done by manned aircraft.

“This would add another resource to our inventory of aerial assets,” he said.

Bobby Walston, director of the Aviation Division at the DOT, said the department would use drones to assess damage from rock or mud slides, to monitor traffic and help with bridge inspections, among other uses.

“We’re chomping at the bit,” he said. “I think there are going to be a lot of benefits to using UAS.”

Patrick Gannon writes for the NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer. www.ncinsider.com

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