RALEIGH – A proposal from the North Carolina Department of Transportation and Raleigh-based drone technology firm PrecisionHawk is one of 10 test projects that have federal government approval to proceed.


U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao on Wednesday announced the project approvals. She says they are all aimed at increasing the use of unmanned aircraft, including monitoring crops and oil pipelines in North Dakota to applying mosquito-killing treatments in Florida and package deliveries in Tennessee.

The NCDOT project will focus on bringing unmanned delivery of medical packages.

A key technology for PrecisionHawk is its ability to provide beyond visual line of site, or BVLOS, for drone control.

“Drones have proven to be a transformative force for business intelligence and operations, and today’s decision by the FAA amplifies this opportunity by bringing together the public and private sectors to embrace innovation while balancing the safety and security of our nation’s airspace,” said Michael Chasen, CEO of PrecisionHawk.

“Our work with these exemplary agencies will open up the skies for drone flight over long distances—an imperative for commercial drone applications—and unlock the next generation of American aerial intelligence and innovation.”

President Donald Trump signed a directive last year to establish the “innovation zones” that allow exemptions to some drone regulations, such as flying over people, nighttime flights and flights where the aircraft can’t be seen by the operator. States, communities and tribes selected to participate would devise their own trial programs in partnership with government and industry drone users.

“Data gathered from these pilot projects will form the basis of a new regulatory framework to safely integrate drones into our national airspace,” Chao said in a statement.

Chao, who called the rapidly developing drone industry the biggest development since the jet age, said about 150 applications were received.

Bobby Walston, director of aviation for NCDOT, was in Washington, D.C., for the announcement. He told The Triangle Business Journal that now “the fun begins.”

“Now we can get serious in talking with our partners,” he said. “Our main focus is on health care package delivery … but it’s not limited to just that. What I like about this is, it’s a program we can really lean forward. And the FAA is saying they’re committing to work with us, to helping us lean forward and not have so much bureaucracy.”

PrecisionHawk advantage

“Leading organizations are increasingly exploring commercial drones for package delivery, an application that offers logistical and environmental benefits over traditional delivery trucking and shipping methods. However, a successful drone-based package delivery system is totally reliant on the ability to fly drones beyond visual line of sight, and until recently those permissions have been distinctly limited by the FAA due to safety and implementation concerns,”  noted Diana Cooper, senior vice president of policy at PrecisionHawk

“After three years of research, PrecisionHawk is able to offer a roadmap for organizations and individual operators looking to fly beyond visual line of sight and take full advantage of some of the most innovative and lucrative applications for commercial drones, including package delivery services.”

Selected in addition to NC DOT and PrecisionHawk’s plan were the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma; the cities of San Diego, California, and Reno, Nevada; state transportation departments in North Dakota, and Kansas; University of Alaska-Fairbanks; the Center for Innovative Technology in Virginia; Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority in Memphis, Tennessee; and the Lee County Mosquito Control District in Fort Meyers, Florida.

The Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota has an unmanned aircraft mission. North Dakota Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford said the program will spur more commercial investment and “allow us to explore new uses for unmanned aircraft.” He envisioned drones helping with oil field, flood and weather monitoring, and “finding missing persons.”

The unmanned aircraft industry has pushed for relaxed restrictions, and the Trump administration has said current regulations have limited drone use, forcing companies to test overseas.

Steven Bradbury, a lawyer for the federal Transportation Department, said drones have caused some “apprehension” with the public but one of the initiative’s biggest goals will be increased “community awareness and acceptance” of unmanned aircraft.

Bradbury said there is no direct federal funding for the test program.