Researchers at the Next Generation Air Transportation Center at N.C. State University are on the cutting edge of research on drones, or unmanned aircraft .
Drone technology has been explored in recent years for a wide range of commercial and military applications.
“We’re going to see commercial opportunities (for drones) exploding in the next three to five years, with everything from aerial surveys, package delivery ... emergency management (and a) broader area of awareness of what’s going on in the next five years,” said Kyle Snyder, director of the NGAT Center.
Snyder said NCSU is the only UNC-system school working on drone technology, but researchers at other schools are contributing.
He said Elizabeth City State University, UNC-Charlotte, N.C. State Agricultural & Technical University and the computer science department of UNC-Chapel Hill are all collaborating with NCSU in developing projects regarding drones.
Snyder said he thinks drone technology will help the state economically.
“I think you can expect to see lots of jobs, lots of activity, lots of flying, lots of new markets being created,” he said.
He said NGAT is the only entity approved by the state chief information officer to conduct drone research.
But some are also raising privacy and safety concerns surrounding drone use.
Sarah Preston, policy director for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the challenges of regulating drone-focused legislation will be substantial.
“I think it’s a pretty complicated issue, and there are going to be both public, governmental uses as well as private uses that are going to have to be regulated appropriately,” she said. “So I think from the perspective of advancing the use of drones, the biggest problem is going to just be figuring out the best way of regulating both private and public uses.”
Preston said the ACLU is primarily concerned with governmental use of drones.
“We are concerned about privacy interests so we’ve been advocating for protections of privacy, basically requiring law enforcement to get a warrant if they’re going to conduct surveillance — using the drones — of citizens or property, privately owned property,” she said.
Preston said the only policies regulating drone use come from the Federal Aviation Administration, but that state legislators are working to develop further guidelines.
N.C. Rep. Carl Ford, R-Cabarrus, who serves on the N.C. House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, said privacy and safety issues are the main focus of the state’s potential legislation on drones.
“We want to make sure people’s privacy is protected without a doubt,” he said.
Ford said most of the framework for privacy protection already exists in the state’s laws and will be considered in future legislation.
“No one can look in your window, no one can fly over your home and photograph it now unless they’ve got the proper permits and everything on it for the counties or whatever, or as property taxes go,” he said.
Ford also said he expects drone use to increase significantly in the next decade.
“I think it has the potential to just explode,” he said.
He said there could be 30,000 drones in the state in the next five to eight years.
Ford said the reaction of the public to the House committee has been mixed.
“Everyone’s always afraid, including me, of technology,” he said. “But most of the time everything seems to work out. We just have to do it in the right fashion.”