Politics & Government

Dan Forest gets money to study drones and ‘vertical takeoff’ aircraft in GOP budget

The proposed state budget includes funding for an industry and politician that Republicans hope will really take off.

The spending plan proposed by GOP legislators this week calls for appropriating $1.5 million to Lt. Gov. Dan Forest’s office to study the potential economic impact of drones and so-called Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing aircraft, referred to as eVTOL (ev-tol) aircraft.

Forest is considered the frontrunner to win the Republican gubernatorial primary and then face incumbent Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, in November 2020. The funding for Forest’s office stands out in a budget proposal otherwise dominated by routine allocations for education and various government operations.

Half of the $1.5 million would go toward studying the potential for drones and eVTOL aircraft use in North Carolina. The lieutenant governor’s office is instructed to interview “leaders in aviation, telecommunications, education, health care, transportation, fuel technologies, emergency management, military, agriculture, planning, and venture capital to determine opportunities” for those aircraft systems.

The other half of the money is to “organize and convene a summit.” But the money may be used to hire staff, consultants and vendors to conduct the study. An interim report on the study would be due to a legislative committee by next April and more complete research would be due to the eVTOL summit by October 2020.

The demand to operate eVTOL vehicles in North Carolina is unclear.

But news of the budget money comes less than a year after Charlotte lured the headquarters of tech giant Honeywell, a major manufacturer of electronics, aerospace and electronic equipment.

And it comes less than a month after Honeywell announced a partnership with Jaunt Air Mobility to create an eVTOL aircraft, its third such collaboration with an air taxi company. Jaunt Air partners with ride-hailing service Uber, which has branched out into other forms of transportation. Together, Jaunt and Uber hope to deploy a working electric passenger aircraft by 2023, Business Insider reported earlier this month.

The budget line was first noticed by Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst at the NC Justice Center, a liberal nonprofit. Nordstrom tweeted his amusement that the budget would give Forest money to study and hold a summit on “flying cars.” NC Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, tweeted that she rolled her eyes at the budget line.

Liz Doherty, spokeswoman for the NC Democratic Party, echoed that sentiment in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“Innovation is great. New technologies are, too. But flying cars don’t do much for people who are sick or dying due to a lack of access to healthcare,” Doherty said, suggesting he should put his energy toward expanding Medicaid — which Republican leaders have declined to do.

Forest, for his part, released a statement Wednesday predicting that innovative aircraft could come to North Carolina “in the very near future.”

“That is why I have been working with members of the General Assembly to secure funding to study what our state’s capabilities are for this new technology, as well as create a roadmap to ensure North Carolina can be a leader in the production and supply chain of these vehicles,” Forest said.

He also suggested the aircraft could be used in future disaster recovery efforts.

Paul “Andy” Specht reports on North Carolina leaders and state politics for The News & Observer and PolitiFact. Specht previously covered Raleigh City Hall and town governments around the Triangle. He’s a Raleigh native who graduated from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. Contact him at aspecht@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4870.
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